Springboks gamble as Wales banks on more resilience
South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber denied it’s a gamble and Wales captain Dan Biggar said “there’s nothing in it.”
But almost everywhere else, Nienaber’s decision to change 19 of his 23 players and rest 14 Rugby World Cup winners for the second test on Saturday with a series still to play for has provoked strong reaction.
Wales great Gareth Edwards told Welsh media the decision was disrespectful and could well backfire on the world champions, especially after the Springboks’ front-liners scraped home 32-29 in the first test with a last-second penalty .
South African media have expressed concern over a risky and “radical” team selection by Nienaber — he made 14 switches to his starting 15 — that might prove unforgivable if Wales catches out a Springboks team of fringe players and youngsters to snatch a first test win over the Boks on South African soil in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
That would end a 58-year run of success at home over Wales for South Africa and leave the series 1-1 with a decider to play.
“If there had been five or six changes, you would maybe have raised an eyebrow. But 14 changes, it’s overwhelming,” said Edwards, the former Wales and British and Irish Lions scrumhalf. “I don’t think it shows respect for Wales. ... It is a great opportunity (for Wales) to beat them and say, ‘Thank you very much for picking that team.’”
Nienaber defended his wholesale changes by asserting the Springboks “picked a side we believe can beat Wales.” But that side is without captain Siya Kolisi, without the entire first-choice front row that’s considered the best in the world, without key lineout jumper Lood de Jager, and with a completely new backline from the opening test.
In its defense, South Africa has recalled World Cup-winning flyhalf Handré Pollard, who will also captain, and former world player of the year Pieter-Steph du Toit at flanker. Eben Etzebeth, the only player in the starting 15 to be retained, will play his 99th test.
And responding to claims it was effectively a Springboks B team, Nienaber said: “I don’t think I’d take offence to that, but Handré and Eben will.”
There is a World Cup just over a year away and Nienaber does need to move the Springboks on from the team of 2019, even if experimenting so extensively with a series still in the balance is a risk. And it also may have thrown up a dilemma for Wales, which would surely have been expecting the same Springboks to want to prove themselves having been pushed so close against all expectations last weekend at Loftus Versfeld.
“We’re not sure what’s coming,” Wales coach Wayne Pivac said of Nienaber’s left-field selections, which include new caps Kurt-Lee Arendse at right wing and Evan Roos at No. 8. Third-choice scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse will also start. There are four other uncapped players on the Boks’ bench and 13 of the 23 have played less than 10 tests. Pivac pointed out the risk also offers a reward.
“Results with that squad will be a pat on the back for the coach,” he said.
In stark contrast, Wales made one change to its 15, preferring the height and strength of Alex Cuthbert in place of Josh Adams on the left wing. Prop Sam Wainwright could make his debut off the bench.
Otherwise, Wales will send the same combination out remembering that they led the No. 1-ranked team 18-3 at halftime in the first test and nearly won at the end having lost four players to yellow cards, three of them in the decisive last 15 minutes. Center George North and flanker Dan Lydiate both made strong returns from long-term injuries.
Wales skipper Biggar gave more thought to that promise from his team than the selection policy of the Springboks.
“They can pick who they want,” he said.
South Africa: Warrick Gelant, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Jesse Kriel, Andre Esterhuizen, Aphelele Fassi, Handré Pollard (captain), Jaden Hendrikse; Evan Roos, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Marcell Coetzee, Marvin Orie, Eben Etzebeth, Trevor Nyakane, Joseph Dweba, Thomas du Toit. Reserves: Malcolm Marx, Ntuthuko Mchunu, Vincent Koch, Ruan Nortje, Rynhardt Elstadt, Deon Fourie, Grant Williams, Damian Willemse.
Wales: Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Nick Tompkins, Alex Cuthbert, Dan Biggar (captain), Kieran Hardy; Taulupe Faletau, Tommy Reffell, Dan Lydiate, Adam Beard, Will Rowlands, Dillon Lewis, Ryan Elias, Gareth Thomas. Reserves: Dewi Lake, Wyn Jones, Sam Wainwright, Alun Wyn Jones, Josh Navidi, Tomos Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Josh Adams.
More AP rugby: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports