After 40 games have been played in the tournament so far, this week sees the Rugby World Cup progresses to the play-off stages. From 20 teams, 12 have gone home and only 8 remain in contention for rugby's ultimate prize, the Web Ellis Cup. There are some incredible clashes to look forward to this weekend, none more so than the clash between hosts France and current World Champions, the Springboks. A game that will get underway on Sunday at 21:00.
By now we know the Springboks are a side that stick pretty well to a set test week routine. Sundays are for game reviews, Mondays everyone is expected to be out on the training field if they wish to be in the selection frame and on Tuesdays (occasionally Wednesday's) the team is released to the media. This has been done by the Bok management since they took charge in 2018 as their way of quietening the media hype on the one hand, and affording players certainty and comfort on the other. I for one, being a journalist that has covered the team for the last 4 years, have come to appreciate this consistency.
So what changed this week? What is the big fuss being made around the Springbok selection? Why is the team announcement being delayed until Friday? We already have confirmation that the Bokke have a clean bill of health, so it isn't waiting on an injured player. What then could it be? Rassie was quizzed on this in his latest media briefing and had the following to say:
“The decision to delay the team naming is without a doubt tactical. We have been mixing and matching for the last year and making sure that in almost every single position we have two almost equally good players. In some cases, we are not even sure which one is the best, so we’re keeping our options open for a seven-one, six-two or five-three split. With both Handre and Manie being available, and Lukhanyo fully fit, we have sort of made up our minds. We want to see what the French team looks like too. That also might have an influence on us going seven-one or six-two.”
Over the years we have come to know Rassie as an astute tactician, who doesn't shy away from a mind game or two. Chess not Checkers as he would say. He will know the French analysts are picking apart every player and dissecting every move they have run, every defensive strategy they have deployed in the hopes of gaining those miniscule advantages that could tip the game in their favor. It is for this reason, I believe the team has not yet been made public.
For a team so set in its ways, it would truly surprise me to see them truly deviating from the plans. I have no doubt about it, the team has been selected, the players know who will be in the match day 23 and all that is left is a little shithousery with the hosts. Will they have to deal with Manie's running game or the tactical kicking nuances of Handre? Will they be faced with Jesse, Canan or Lukhanyo marshalling the defence at 13? Will big Andre be released on them at 12 or will Duane or Jasper be lurking around the fringes of the rucks?
By delaying the team announcement, they have made figuring all of that out, a little more difficult for Galthie and his staff. They would have been expecting to analyze the Bok team will in advance of naming their side, they had no reason not to expect the early team announcement. It reminds of the scene from Ride Along 2 with Kevin Hart driving the getaway car. Constantly indicating where he was going, seemingly giving away his plan, until the last second where he indicated and then turned the opposite way. Much like this Rassie will be banking on France planning for one scenario, before hitting them with something different and unexpected.
World Rugby requires the team announcement 48 hours prior to kick-off and you can rest assured RasNaber are going to take advantage of every minute of that this week. Whilst the Bok management claim they are waiting to see France's line-up for the game, I would be truly surprised if this had any bearing whatsoever on the 23 we will deploy.
So what is the Bok's big secret? Really, there isn't one. They're just using the time to frustrate France's preparations more than anything. Barring injury, the team they settled on, on Monday is the team that is going to run out on Sunday. Regardless of whether Dupont plays at all or whether they load their bench to counter us. We will be going out to impose our game on Les Bleus, not to merely react to theirs.
If you want to check out my team selection for this weekend, you can find it here.