South Africa go into the defence of the Rugby World Cup title with a renewed swagger and greater squad depth than recent years, but are on a side of the draw that means they are playing “knockout rugby” from game one in France.
The Springboks produced thumping victories in their final two warm-up games, beating Wales 52-16 in Cardiff and inflicting a biggest ever defeat on New Zealand with a 35-7 win at neutral Twickenham as they seek a record fourth World Cup win.
Coach Jacques Nienaber will hope they are peaking at the right time and has admitted they are better equipped for success this year than when they lifted the trophy four years ago in Japan.
They must navigate Ireland and Scotland in their pool, after which one of France or New Zealand will likely be waiting in the quarter-finals.
“We are in knockout rugby from game one when we play Scotland (in Marseille on Sept. 10). That is the reality of it,” Nienaber said. “Our goal is the World Cup. Everyone knows this is our aim.
“We can’t hide away from that. We want to be the second team to go back-to-back after New Zealand (2011 and 2015) and the first team to win the trophy four times.”
South Africa’s pack of forwards is the envy of many, with any one of the 19 in the squad able to make a strong case to start. There are no spare parts here.
It allows them to implement their “Bomb Squad” off the bench, replacements who come on, usually early in the second half, with fresh legs and lungs to continue to grind opponents into submission and maintain set-piece dominance.
It gives Nienaber an 80-minute game and is hugely effective, even if their preferred 6-2 split on the bench between forwards and backs does leave them vulnerable to injuries in the backline.
“It is something that we train for, with certain forwards to fulfil some roles in backline play. We have to plan for those scenarios with all the yellow cards that go around these days,” Nienaber said.
They have been hurt by injuries to two of their stalwarts from 2019, flyhalf Handre Pollard and outside centre Lukhanyo Am, who are not part of the squad in France.
Manie Libbok has taken over the number 10 jersey and gives the team more attacking impetus with ball in hand.
But he does not have the accuracy of Pollard off the kicking tee and is prone simple misses, which could come back to bite the side in tight knockout games.
Am’s place will be taken by Jesse Kriel or mercurial winger Canan Moodie, 20, who is a rising star of the global game and can cover 13.
Nienaber does have a concern around the team’s ability to turn entries into the opponent’s 22 into points, something he has bemoaned for a while.
“In the World Cup you get only four or five opportunities and you have to capitalise on them. That is something we will try and fix (ahead of the tournament),” he said.