The Springbok coaching duo of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber or RasNaber as we prefer, have a few tough choices awaiting them in the coming days. Choices I am very glad I need not make, but ultimately ones that will define their tenure in the Green & Gold. Whilst not averse to creative thinking, the pair will have their work cut out for them as they begin putting together their match day 23 for the quarter-final.
I must start out by commending the Springbok management. Leaving the likes of Lukhanyo, Lood and Handre back home when the 33 man World Cup squad was announced was no easy choice. It was an astute decision however as they opted to take 33 players who were fully fit and could play a game the very next day if needs be. Yes, they may have been aware that potential injuries could see these players recalled, but I believe it was the right choice not to take them at the outset.
Just focusing on Lukhanyo and Handre now, the choice to leave them at home was smart for two reasons. The first being that the 33 selected knew they were there on merit, form and because they were fit. The other, less spoken of side of this decision however, is the part I reckon will pay the most dividends in the play-off stages. In Handre you had a class player who had perhaps become too comfortable as the starting 10 and needed a bit of pressure on him. He has now received a lifeline and has already come back fighting to regain the jersey he held for so long. In Lukhanyo, you have one of the worlds best 13's but also a player who was somewhat out of form as he recovered from injury, another wake up call dished out and now it remains to be seen what will come of it.
Those are decisions already made, and it now looks like the Bok squad is closing in on full strength, minus the notable absences of Mapimpi, Marx and De Jager at this stage. So what then will the Bok coaches do ahead of a potential quarter-final show down with France? Well these are the choices that will define them, so lets take a look.
Flyhalf - Now we sit with a situation where you have Manie Libbok who is an incredible player and has breathed life into the Springbok backline. His attacking prowess is undoubtable whether its one of his long bullet passes or his pin point cross-field kicking. Where he lacks however is his ability to slot the crucial kicks that keep the score board ticking. With 11 points left out on the pitch against Ireland, the calls for Pollard to return gained momentum and whilst a case can certainly be made out for the need for an accurate goal kicker, one must not lose sight of what will be lost if Manie is taken out of the 23.
On the other hand you have Handre Pollard. Pollard has had struggles with injuries of late, but completed 31 minutes for Leicester Tigers in a warm-up before an unfortunate injury to Malcolm Marx threw him a lifeline. Pollard then made a successful return to international rugby last weekend against Tonga, managing 50 minutes, making his tackles and slotting 4/4 off the tee (Manie did slot 3/3). Pollard brings a calm composure to the Green & Gold and there is a reason he is one of the World Cups top points scorers. On form he would be impossible to leave out.
In Pollard you have your Springbok general back. He has been the primary 10 since RasNaber took office and barring injury, he would have continued in this role right through. That is not the nature of sport however and injury came knocking and presented Manie with a chance that he took with both hands and then some. The two offer such contrasting strengths to the Bokke that picking one ahead of the other is one extremely difficult choice. I do believe that both could feature in a 23, which could be the way forward, but if you must pick, who do you go with?
The second difficult choice comes in at outside center. When Am's name was absent from the squad list, I was truly shocked. Ronnie & I had discussed on the Podcast a number of times how we lacked depth at 13 and it seemed like this nightmare had become a reality. We knew Jesse Kriel could cover there has he had done ample times before. The suddenly Canan Moodie demolished the All Blacks at Twickenham playing outside big Andre and well our depth concerns there sort of evaporated.
Now that Mapimpi has been ruled out and Lukhanyo is back, the question is a tough one. Who starts at 13? This is arguably a lot more complicated than the flyhalf debate for a few reasons. The first being that including Am to start would mean needing to make provision on the bench for him should he not make a full 80, which could alter the expected 6/2 split. The second is that we aren't sure of his current form, although he did play in the last fixture against Los Pumas so he hasn't been out as long as Polly.
The third and most difficult reason is, who justifies being dropped? Whilst Jesse has many trolls and haters, there is absolutely no basis for their claims that he doesn't belong there. His defence has saved our asses more times than I can count and whilst not as flashy as Am on attack, he is no slouch in this department either and has built a strong combo with DDA. Really it comes down to one thing, do we back reputational form over the form of Kriel & Moodie which has been on display for months now.
Lukhanyo has a few days to get up to speed since the Bokke aren't playing this weekend, but unfortunately I doubt he will make the cut in the 23 named for a quarter-final. Bringing him back was a smart move but arguably one that improves the squad as a whole and adds vital experience, rather than a direct insertion into the match day side.
Whichever side of the debate you fall on, making these two decisions could make or break the Springboks hopes of retaining the World Cup. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't, unless of course the scoreboard is in your favor come the 80th minute. Only then will you know if the right decision was made.
If it was me making this choice, and I can't stress enough how glad I am that it isn't. I would be starting Pollard with Manie on the bench as part of the 6/2, and as much as I love him, I can't find space or enough of an apetite for risk to include Lukhanyo.