Bok bench key to Wellington crunch

RYAN VREDE writes the potency of the Springboks’ bench will be central to how they fare at the World Cup. They have to get the combinations right against Wales and build from there.

This hasn’t been a strength of the Springboks in the last two seasons, with poor selections and questionable deployment undermining their cause at times. However, with the emergence of a string of game breakers, particularly in the back division, the coaching staff have at their disposal players capable of influencing the result favourably.

Astute composition of the reserves (a 5-2 or 4-3 split) is essential. The latter has been the preferred option for all five of Peter de Villiers’ Tests as coach against Wales and he is likely to continue in this manner in their crucial pool opener in Wellington on Sunday.

With lock Bakkies Botha looking increasingly unlikely to recover from an Achilles injury, Danie Rossouw is expected to partner Victor Matfield in the second row. This leaves a void on the bench likely to be filled by the only specialist lock in the squad, Johann Muller.

Willem Alberts has consistently imposed himself on the contest as an impact player and he should cover the loose forward positions. Juan Smith’s injury should have eliminated the potential headache of whether to start with Heinrich Brussow or Schalk Burger at openside flank. Burger’s abrasive attacking and defensive style is more suited to blindside and his potency is diminished when asked to play directly to the ball, although he is competent in this regard. The duo can and should start in tandem.

Elsewhere among the reserves, Bismarck du Plessis has consistently made a telling impact when introduced – his powerful ball carries, robust defence and presence at the breakdown acting as a shot of adrenalin for the Springboks. Whether captain John Smit will be a straight swap for him remains to be seen and this will determine the composition of the bench. Smit struggled when shifted to prop to accommodate Du Plessis against Australia in Durban in their penultimate Tri-Nations Test. It isn’t a gamble worth revisiting and the Boks would be best served banking on versatile prop CJ van der Linde as a bench option.

Among the reserve backs, Francois Hougaard has edged ahead of Ruan Pienaar who didn’t advance his cause with two mediocre performances on the Tri-Nations tour. With Fourie du Preez expected to always complete 80 minutes in their major matches (injuries notwithstanding), Hougaard will often be deployed as a wing, where his pace, enthusiasm, eye for a gap and work rate can be a boon in the final quarter.

The final remaining spots should be shared among Pat Lambie, Butch James, Gio Aplon and Juan de Jong. Lambie’s positional versatility will be appealing to the selectors, but he should be seen as competing with De Jongh not James. The Lions man’s skill, temperament and World Cup experience must see him included, with the dynamic Aplon and Lambie rounding off the bench.

This area of the game could be decisive to the outcome. Wales have a competent run-on side featuring many experienced players and a clutch of Lions, but lack any discernible punch among their reserves. Injuries have impacted heavily on their strength in depth, and while the likes of (likely) reserves Huw Bennett, Ryan Bevington, Josh Turnbull, Justin Tipuric, Tavis Knoyle, Scott Williams, Aled Brew are competent Test players, they certainly cannot compare to their Springbok counterparts.

The Springbok’s bench galvanised their challenge in Cardiff in the June and November Tests of 2010, and they will be expected to do so once more on Sunday.

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