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Rugby | Springboks

Matthew Pearce © Gallo Images

Matt on Boks: hookers into spotlight

The Springboks left Paris on Sunday afternoon with two injury concerns coming out of the one-point victory over France, one to captain Eben Etzebeth and the other to hooker Malcolm Marx – named as man-of-the-match at Stade de France – who took a knock to the shoulder that he only really started to feel in the hours following the game.

Both went for x-rays on Sunday and revealed nothing untoward, although Marx will go for an MRI today to assess whether there is something more sinister lurking. The team doctor has expressed a “high probability” of Etzebeth being fit for selection against Italy and the captain himself confirmed this personally in the team hotel on Monday morning.

The possible unavailability of Marx brings sharply into focus the management of players off the Springbok bench, something coach Allister Coetzee was quizzed about at his first media conference in Italy.

Bongi Mbonambi got no time in Paris on Saturday following the eleven minutes he got in the first match of the tour in Dublin. Chiliboy Ralepelle, the other hooker on tour, saw no time off the bench when included in the 23 for the home tests against Australia and New Zealand, while also being left out of the Sharks 23 for their Currie Cup playoff games.

“It is a concern, that lack of game time for Bongi and Chili,” Coetzee said, “but we also don’t go into games with pre-conceived ideas of when to bring players off the bench. In the last two games of the Rugby Championship in South Africa and again in Paris, Malcolm’s influence was there for all to see with the games on a knife edge. It would have been crazy to take him off in those situations and expect anyone else to succeed under that kind of pressure.”

Depending on the outcome of Marx’s scan, the pressure may well be there for the two replacements to fulfil 80 minutes of test rugby, but if cleared to play, Coetzee would surely expect his ‘starters’ to have created an environment in which the Italy game is not on a knife edge and the replacement can get an opportunity to assert himself.

Listening to Coetzee on Monday, it seems unlikely that there will be many changes for this weekend’s test, even though certain players will not be available for the following week against Wales given that the game is outside of the official ‘test window’.

Despite a night to forget from the kicking tee from Handre Pollard, which prevented the Springboks from capitalising on their first half territorial dominance and building scoreboard pressure in Paris, the coach was “satisfied” with what the number 9,10 and 12 axis produced playing for the first time together as a combination at test level.

“Yes, both Ross Cronje and Handre made some passing errors – as did Francois Louw – that put us under unnecessary pressure at times,” said Coetzee, “but I was a lot happier with what they were able to contribute to the overall effort.

“Handre and Francois Venter took the ball to the gain-line effectively and helped us to create space in the wider channels. We saw the benefit of that clearly in the build up to both our tries where we stretched the defence and stayed patient.

“Ross kicked so much better than he did in Dublin and although it appeared that our deeper kicks gave France time, the greater urgency in our kick chase meant more pressure on France and set pieces in good field positions,” he added. “We had 14 line-outs in the game, of which only one was defensive, one around halfway and the other 12 all in French territory, so we were able to dictate territory more effectively.”

Much thought will need to be given to the back row combination this week with an eye on the Welsh clash as well. No matter what happens, the Boks will have four different back rows in the four tests on this tour, with Pieter-Steph du Toit having been unavailable in Paris, Siya Kolisi at home for the birth of a child this week and both Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen unavailable for the Wales trip as foreign-based club players.

And, while there have been wide-spread calls for opportunities to be given to the likes of Lukhanyo Am, Curwin Bosch and Warrick Gelant, this seems unlikely this week with none of the backline replacements having made an appearance in Paris.


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