Mega-wing Duhan van der Merwe was key in negating the Springboks’ renowned bench as the British & Irish Lions stunned the world champions in the first of a three-Test series in Cape Town, writes ZELIM NEL.
Dubbed the Bomb Squad, South Africa’s powerful replacements were central to the Boks’ triumph at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Leading up to the much-anticipated first Test in the Lions series, the explosiveness of the replacement unit was brought into question by the retirement of Beast Mtawarira and Francois Louw, and the injury-withdrawal of Duane Vermeulen and RG Snyman.
Rassie Erasmus appeared to try and negate these factors by retaining a supercharged bench, with the front-row combination of Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Frans Malherbe, while deploying a less proven starting trio.
Beast’s No 1 jersey went to two-Test loosehead Ox Nche, veteran Bongi Mbonambi (back from an isolation period) retained his World Cup hooking berth and Trever Nyakane, who had struggled in the warm-up matches, packed down at tighthead prop.
It was expected that the starters would battle to hold their own and that the Boks would be rescued by Kitshoff sprinting into the surf in the second half. What transpired was quite the opposite as Nche, Mbonambi and Nyakane clocked out with a 12-3 half-time lead, and the replacement front row bombed in a final 40 that the tourists won 19-5.
Malherbe could not solve Rory Sutherland, or his replacement Mako Vunipola, who had come in at the eleventh hour for the injured Wyn Jones. Where the Bok scrum had served as a ferry to favourable field position in the first half, referee Nic Berry was less impressed by Kitshoff, Marx and Malherbe.
This was a problem compounded by the fact that South Africa had lost control of the skies, and Van der Merwe deserves much of the credit for escorting Lions bombs to great effect.
Handre Pollard, Willie le Roux and Cheslin Kolbe took care of kick-receipt in the first 40 and this allowed the Boks to tidy up after every contestable launched by Lions halfback Ali Price, and then return fire with Nche and his mates building the wall.
But that changed emphatically after the break and it was a reversal defined by the first minute of the second stanza. Kwagga Smith allowed a Price contestable to bounce before he collected it, was monstered by flanker Tom Curry and Van der Merwe manhandled the Bok No 8 in a contest for the ball to win a penalty that led to hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie’s try from an attacking lineout.
For the remainder of the match, the Lions successfully teed up their one-ton left wing on the diminutive members of the Bok backfield with hanging isolation kicks, and the result was that Van der Merwe either mashed Smith on the deck, beat Kolbe in the air or created untenable chaos at the tackle point.
This put the Boks into a cycle of negative events. The lack of integrity in kick receipt destabilised their structure and kept the likes of Kitshoff in a state of perpetually having to make reactionary decisions in broken play.
Finding an answer to the Van der Merwe factor will be vital to South Africa’s hope of recovering in the second Test and it is unlikely Erasmus will persist with a sub-100kg loose forward at No 8.
But, with Vermeulen unavailable, Jasper Wiese just one appearance into a Test career that began three weeks ago, and Bulls standout Marcell Coetzee inexplicably snubbed by Erasmus, the options are far from tantalising.