Gerry Thornley: With no du Toit and de Klerk, Boks will have to think outside the box

After losing two pillars, suddenly South Africa’s line-up for third Test looks shaky

South Africa’s scrumhalf Faf de Klerk congratulates flanker Pieter-Steph Du Toit after he scored a try during the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between New Zealand and South Africa on September 21st, 2019. Photograph:  Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

South Africa’s scrumhalf Faf de Klerk congratulates flanker Pieter-Steph Du Toit after he scored a try during the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between New Zealand and South Africa on September 21st, 2019. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

 

When the British & Irish Lions team for Saturday’s third Test was unveiled, it again had a slightly untried and unsettled look to it. Warren Gatland, who knows a thing or two about picking sides for series deciders, had seemingly rolled the dice to a degree.

By contrast, the Springboks have settled back into their familiar World Cup-winning line-up and long-established pattern of play. Yet when their team landed less than an hour later, suddenly they looked a little less proven.

Losing Pieter-Steph du Toit and Faf de Klerk to injury would be a blow to any team. To describe this pair as influential is actually an understatement. Although 6ft 6½in and 5ft 7in respectively, in their contrasting ways they are two of the true pillars of the world champions.

Rangy yet powerful and athletic, Du Toit is hard too, proper Boks hard, and, until suffering the shoulder injury which forced him off in the 21st minute after being dumped on the ground by Duhan van der Merwe last Saturday, had seemed utterly indestructible and like he would go on forever.

In the Boks’ five most important matches at the World Cup, against the All Blacks, Italy and in the three knockout games, Du Toit played every minute, as he did in their unbeaten Rugby Championship campaign beforehand, and latterly their warm-up match against Georgia and the first Lions Test.

Indeed, last Saturday marked the first time in 20 Tests that Du Toit didn’t see out the game.

Powering through

Now, of course, that didn’t stop the Boks powering through to victory, and Jacques Nienaber has opted to start Franco Mostert where he finished last Saturday as well as Lood de Jager – such a profound impact off the bench.

Yet part of the rippled effect is to see the Boks revert to a more conventional 5-3 split rather than the 6-2 Bomb Squad, which somehow does seem to make them look less intimidating.

“There was a discussion to stick with the six-two split or a five-three split,” admitted Nienaber. “It was a big discussion point but we felt this will be better for the game we want to play.”

With Duane Vermeulen also not deemed ready yet, RG Snyman still injured and Rynhardt Elstadt having made little impact off the bench in the first Test, in truth the Boks also had less options.

As with Du Toit, De Klerk played the Boks’ five most important games at the World Cup and, despite playing in a specialist position, played all bar nine minutes of the three knockout games. He was replaced late on after the wins over Japan and England had long been secured, but stayed on until the end for the 19-16 semi-final win over Wales.

Owen Farrell of the British & Irish Lions is tackled by Franco Mostert of South Africa during the second Test between the Springboks and the Lions at Cape Town on Saturday July 31st. Photograph: EJ Langner/Gallo Images/Getty Images
Owen Farrell of the British & Irish Lions is tackled by Franco Mostert of South Africa during the second Test between the Springboks and the Lions at Cape Town on Saturday July 31st. Photograph: EJ Langner/Gallo Images/Getty Images

The only time in the last two years De Klerk has been sidelined for a Test in the last two years, Herschel Jantjies stood in for him, and the latter has been back-up in all the others, scoring some important tries in big matches.

In the absence of De Klerk the Boks have promoted Cobus Reinach, third choice last year and until now this year too, ahead of Jantjies.

“Within our set-up and with our game plan, we feel Cobus and Faf have a similar style of play and skill set they bring to the team,” explained Nienaber.

“Herschel is a little bit different and out of the box, and we feel it’s a like-for-like replacement to bring Cobus in to start, with Herschel able to bring the intensity like he always does off the bench.”

Good season

In truth there was surprise in South Africa that Reinach, who has had a good season with Montpellier where he has partnered Handré Pollard, hadn’t previously been picked ahead of Jantjies, who has had Covid and played little rugby this season.

Reinach is seriously quick and scores tries for fun with his support lines, albeit he has only started four Tests since 2014. In his only start of the 2019 World Cup he scored a hat-trick against Canada, and played against Georgia last month.

Yet in his last two seasons with Northampton and the 2020-21 Top 14 with Montpellier, the 31-year-old has scored 33 tries in 70 games.

Whether this series decider will offer him such opportunities remains to be seen, but if the Lions leave any gaps near the fringe, he’ll be gone before they realise what’s happened.

The bench also sees a recall for the 37-year-old Morné Steyn, long-range penalty hero of the series-clinching win 12 years ago and almost six years since his last Test, ahead of Elton Jantjies in what Nienaber described as “a big toss-up”.

The, eh, style of this series doesn’t appear so well suited and perhaps the Boks want Steyn as goalkicking cover for Pollard and as drop goal or long-range penalty option in the hope of history being repeated.

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