Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber has named an imposing pack, including “warrior” hooker Malcolm Marx to start in his 50th test, for the opening Rugby Championship clash against the All Blacks at Mbombela Stadium on Saturday.
At a time when the All Blacks are not exactly overflowing with form, or hard-nosed, performers up front, the group the South African coach sends out in Mbombela (Nelspruit) on Saturday (3.05am Sunday NZT) certainly presents a formidable challenge for Sam Cane and co.
The Boks did not exactly sashay past a limited Wales side in their July series, but did enough in a matchup where they were prepared to dig deep – essentially running out a second XV for the middle test – to scrape out a 2-1 victory.
But you know they will be ready to go up a level against the All Blacks, and you know hard-man Marx will set a powerful tone from the off in his milestone appearance. He’s a hooker who certainly knows his way to the tryline, with 11 five-pointers in his 49 tests hitherto.
It is an experienced, as well as physical, Boks pack that will run out in Mbombela, with a collective 449 test caps to their name. Marx will have the accomplished Trevor Nyakane and Frans Malherbe bookending him at prop, 100-cap Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager in behind in the second row, while skipper Siya Kolisi forms an outstanding loose trio alongside Pieter-Steph du Toit and the rising Jasper Meadow.
Contrast that with the All Blacks heading into this series without their two senior tighthead props (Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tuungafasi), France-bound loosehead Karl Tu’inukuafe and world-class lock Brodie Retallick and you get an idea of the extent of the challenge in front of the visiting pack.
The Boks have made just three changes to the starting XV that closed out the Wales series, with Marx (for Bongi Mbonamb) and busy halfback Faf de Klerk (for Jaden Hendrikse) essentially rotational changes, while Kurt-Lee Arendse will earn just his second test cap on the right win in place of the injured Cheslin Kolbe.
The out-of-sorts Handre Pollard remains at No 10 in a backline that will once again do plenty of chasing. Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am form a capable midfield, while Makazole Mapimpi and Damian Willemse complete a back three that will look to be more efficient with the ball they do get to hand.
“With Malcolm, we feel it is a big occasion to play one’s 50th test, so it will be good for him to start, while we believe Faf’s experience and style of play will complement our game against the All Blacks,” said Nienaber.
”Malcolm is a true warrior, and he epitomizes what we stand for as the Springboks. The occasion will be so much more special for Malcolm if we win the test, and the team need to do their best so that he can look back at this occasion with good memories.
”The All Blacks are strong all-round and they will come to Nelspruit desperate to avenge their series defeat against Ireland and to prove that they remain one of the powerhouses in world rugby. So we believe experience and physicality will be vital in this test.”
Nienaber has also gone for six forwards on his bench in another node to the importance of the pack in this opening test of the championship. The only new face among the backups is the inclusion of lock Salmaan Moerat in place of Elrigh Louw (loose forward).
But there remains plenty of versatility, with Franco Mostert covering lock and flanker and Kwagga Smith all three loose forward spots, as well as wing at a pinch.
The Boks coach made it clear he wasn’t buying into the decline of the All Blacks empire narrative that has developed major momentum of late.
“The Springboks and All Blacks have a unique rivalry, and we always bring the best out of one another,” said Nienaber.
“Their set pieces are strong, and they have fantastic skills in their backline, so we’ll have to be at our best to register a win. That said, we know where we need to improve (out of the Wales series), and last week’s training camp in Hazyview allowed us to focus on those areas
“New Zealand have always tested us to the limit, and it will be no different over the next two weeks.”
South Africa: Damian Willemse, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Makazole Mapimpi, Handre Pollard, Faf de Klerk; Jasper Wiese, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi (capt), Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, Trevor Nyakane. reserve: Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff, Vincent Koch, Salmaan Moerat, Franco Mostert, Kwagga Smith, Jaden Hendrikse, Willie le Roux.