When the Springboks made a host of team changes for the second Test against Wales, it was understandably described as the most radical selection of the Rassie Erasmus-Jacques Nienaber era.
To recap, only three players in the Boks’ matchday 23 retained their places in the squad from the opening Test, which ended in a hard-fought 32-29 victory. Ultimately, by overhauling the team, the Springboks gambled on the result in order to provide game-time for key players in a high-pressure situation.
At face value, and particularly in hindsight, many felt that the gamble backfired after Wales clinched a historic first-ever win in South Africa. However, those close to the Bok camp will tell you that such a significant selection shake-up had always been part of the “road map” that the Springboks openly laid out before the start of the new Test season.
In short, the big-name players who were left on the sidelines for the Bloemfontein battle always knew what was planned for that second Test.
Shock selection at scrum-half
So, perhaps it stands to reason that the Springboks’ most surprising selection of this three-match series against Wales has in fact rather been the decision to start Jaden Hendrikse ahead of regular scrum-half Faf de Klerk this Saturday.
To unpack this further, since Erasmus and Nienaber returned from Ireland to coach the Springboks in 2018, De Klerk has started 25 out of the 41 Tests that have been played. And if not for injury, he would undoubtedly have started even more.
This is how important De Klerk is to the Springboks. His kicking game, mobility, work-rate and line-speed on defence has all been integral to the Bok cause as the team famously went on to win a Rugby World Cup and British & Irish Lions series.
By benching De Klerk for the decisive third Test against Wales, it could be argued that Nienaber has actually made the most ballsy call of his tenure. Effectively a warning has been issued to all so-called first-choice players who had perhaps grown a little complacent.
Even at the team announcement press conference at the Springboks’ swanky team hotel near Hermanus in the Western Cape, Nienaber laid down the challenge to De Klerk.
“If you look at our squad and the 42 that are here, there is a lot of competition and many in-form players knocking hard on the door. I think for the players who you would call the established players – the guys who have won a World Cup and a British & Irish Lions series – it’s key for them to focus on their performance week in and week out.
“For the other guys, if they perform well, that’s the way they get selected. Jaden will know that Faf will come hard for him to get his spot back, because he is a fighter. Jaden’s challenge now is to keep putting in consistent performances like he did last weekend.”
The fact remains that the wholesale changes in the second Test were always part of a bigger grand plan. However, there is a sense that Hendrikse’s sudden selection over De Klerk was far more spontaneous, with a youngster rewarded for a standout performance in just his third Test, while the Bok regulars received a very clear-cut message about upping their own performances.
Nienaber was directly asked if this selection was somewhat unplanned, and he decisively indicated that the coaches are willing to reward form over reputation when deemed best for the team.
“If you look at the performance analysis we did on Jaden this season, he was really on form. There wasn’t a big gap in terms of what he was producing with the Sharks and what we are looking for. It’s just consistent performances, not only last weekend. He has been with us from the start at training, and he’s been solid from then.”
As the Bok coach highlighted, though, there is no doubt that De Klerk will come back fighting, while Herschel Jantjies – who will suddenly be sitting in the stands – will have some work to do before earning a recall to the matchday 23. It’s also worth remembering that Cobus Reinach is still with the Springboks, and is currently completing his injury rehabilitation before joining the fight for the scrum-half berth.
Chance to nail down jersey
For now, a massive opportunity lies in the hands of Hendrikse, who could keep hold of the number nine jersey at the start of the Rugby Championship if he ticks all the right Bok boxes this Saturday.
It’s a challenge he is fully aware of.
“Coming into this Springboks environment has been so special,” Hendriske exclusively tells Planet Rugby. “I have felt really welcome, but personally I know that my main focus has to be on being consistent in everything I do. My basics and fundamentals have to be really good, and I’m fully aware of the importance of executing my kicking game well so that we play in the right areas of the field.
“The messages to me have been very clear, and it’s also important for me to just go out and enjoy myself. Right now I can’t look further than this weekend. The backing I’ve received from the coaches has meant a lot to me, and now I want to make the most of this opportunity.
“There are a bit of nerves, but once it comes closer to the game and once I do the first play, the nerves will go away, and then I just have to execute my job. For me, it’s just about trying to be myself, and doing what I do best to provide for the team.”
South Africa v Wales preview
Planet Rugby previews the series deciding third Test between South Africa and Wales at the Cape Town Stadium.