Concerns over Pollard, Mapimpi fitness prompted five-three split

Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber has shed further light on why they have decided to turn away from the six-two split between forwards and backs for the first Test against the British & Irish Lions on Saturday.

On Tuesday afternoon, Nienaber announced the Springboks’ match-day 23 to face the Lions in the first of the three-Test series in Cape Town.

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One of the features of the squad is that the Springboks have reverted to a five-three split between their forward and backline replacements, ditching the six-two split that was a major contributor to the team’s World Cup success in 2019.

Herschel and Elton Jantjies, together with utility back Damian Willemse, will provide the backline cover, while Rynhardt Elstadt provides something of a utility forward on the bench, able to cover both lock and flank.

When asked about this decision, Nienaber pointed to concerns over Handre Pollard and Makazole Mapimpi’s fitness as to why the Springboks will have an extra back on the bench.

Mapimpi and Pollard were among the players who had to spend last week in self-isolation in Johannesburg due to a Covid-19 outbreak in the camp, subsequently missing the opportunity to pick up more game time by representing the South Africa A team against the B&I Lions and Bulls.

Pollard, in particular, has not played much rugby after suffering a long-term knee injury last year, only returning to play for Montpellier in May.

“If you look at the fact that Handre hasn’t been involved in a lot of rugby,” Nienaber said. “We will obviously go with a six-two split if it is available to us and if we feel that we are confident. But I think the fact that Handre hasn’t played a lot, he has just come back from Covid and the same with Mapimpi. We just thought that it wasn’t the right time to go with two backs on the bench.

“The thing about a six-two split, if it’s available to us and if we are comfortable, we will go with it. We felt in this specific game, it wasn’t an opportunity for us. Yes, Rynhardt Elstadt does provide us with that luxury to go with that six-two and that’s maybe something we will look at in the future. Circumstances and players available, the roles they needed to fulfil, some players carrying a niggle, then you would probably not go for a six-two split.

“Let’s say, if you have a back that you are doubtful about, lasting the full 80 or maybe he is struggling with a niggle or confidence, whatever it is, then you might not go with a six-two split.”

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Nienaber also provided further insight into how the Boks will use their bench on Saturday, with the suggestion that it is all about allowing each player to empty the tank against the Lions.

“At the moment the players also know that they might only get 20 minutes. The moment a player on the field is not producing or fulfilling his required role – not necessarily that he is making mistakes – but 1 to 15 starting has got a specific role and the moment they don’t fulfil that role, due to their tiredness or Covid or not being exposed to rugby for some time, that’s when we will make a substitution.

“If a player fulfils his role up until minute 80, there is no reason to substitute him. The players know their specific roles and the moment we see a drop-off in that role, we will look to substitute them.

Photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP

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Dylan Jack