South Africa’s coaches debated long and hard in the week over team selection, changing their line-up at least three times before settling on the selection for Sunday’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final, assistant coach Mzwandile Stick said on the eve of the clash against France.
The defending champions surprised with their starting team for the knockout clash against the hosts, picking a new halfback pairing in Manie Libbok and Cobus Reinach and drafting in the 37-year-old Duane Vermeulen at the base of the scrum in place of the explosive Jasper Weise.
“There was a lot of stress and tough debate in the boardroom and, I won’t lie to you, we must have changed the side three times,” Stick said of the team selection meetings.
“As coaches we’re always honest with each other, we always debate the players and it’s always in the interest of the team.”
Libbok’s selection in the key flyhalf role comes despite him having the second-worst goalkicking record at the tournament with an average of 54.5%.
But Stick was adamant the player provided a more expansive option for the Springboks.
“Libbok has really changed the image of how we play the game. It’s no longer the boring rugby that people used to accuse us of.”
South Africa, however, can no longer count on putting away the penalty opportunities their forward power often creates with the usually ever-reliable Handre Pollard’s accuracy now confined to the bench – from the start, at least.
“But if the game gets tighter guys like Willie le Roux and Pollard can come on and close it for us,” Stick added.
Freewheeling scrumhalf Reinach will add pace to South Africa’s play, and it is ironic that the Boks will be seeking to replicate some of the flair that France have been famous for while the home side hope to physically grind their way to victory on the back of a steely defence and powerful pack.
“I think it’s going to take the whole 23 players for us to go through and it’s going to be a tough,” Stick added.
“It’s a big moment for us but we always enjoy the challenge.”