The impact of the Springboks’ 6-2 bench is going to be of the utmost importance in their Rugby Championship Test against Australia in Brisbane on Saturday, because of a combination of who the referee is and who they are playing against.
Nigel Owens is a fantastic referee and there tends to be a very high ball-in-play figure whenever he’s in charge. Australia have also always had a very attacking mindset in all the games against the Springboks and with their two flyhalves, they will also want to keep the ball in play.
So the ball-in-play figure could be 40-45 minutes, which is the norm against Australia when Owens is the referee but about 20% more than average, which is the reason why Allister Coetzee has gone for six forwards on the bench.
If you look at our recent Test matches against Australia, the Springboks have been comfortably in front for 60-65 minutes but have not finished the job because of a lack of bench impact.
So it’s obvious that having impact players on the bench will be vital and the bench this year has definitely added value– guys like Jaco Kriel, the two props and Pieter-Steph du Toit have provided real grunt up front.
The key for the Springboks is to have 23 players to play for the full 90 minutes. Three forwards will possibly play the full 90 minutes – Strauss, Whiteley and Etzebeth, for whom it is a tremendous achievement to reach 50 caps so young.
Victor Matfield made a very relevant point on SuperSport when he said that the Springboks didn’t have a single driving maul in Salta. Their lineout is so dominant that they must use their maul. Even the Lions do – they have a strong set-piece and maul, it’s a very solid part of their game.
Juan de Jongh and Jesse Kriel will make quite an exciting centre pairing. It’s a bit harsh though on Damien de Allende and Lionel Mapoe because they’ve seen very little ball on the front foot, but obviously Allister has decided that it’s time for a shake-up. It’s especially difficult at outside centre if the midfield is not operating and you get the ball up against a defensive wall, you’re very influenced by what happens on your inside.
The advantage of Juan and Jesse is that they are better communicators in defence and attack, and both have amazing sidestepping ability and run hard reverse lines against the defence. Jesse scored two wonderful tries stepping from centre in last year’s Rugby Championship and they will pose a different attacking threat against Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley.
Allister has obviously also gone for this pairing because Australia don’t have the same size in the midfield as other teams like New Zealand do. Australia will have a very small midfield, which provides the Springboks with the opportunity to run at them and expose their defensive weaknesses.
Australia mix their backs around defensively, they are not always in the channel you’d expect them to be, for example Cooper does find himself at fullback or blind wing sometimes on defence, so then you can use the high-ball kicking game on him from lineouts.
The obvious reason for Australia to go with two flyhalves is that it puts a lot more width on their passing game and they can use a lot more second-man plays from wide channels. The other advantage is they can split their backs on a middle ruck and have two sides to attack.
The other big selection issue has been Adriaan Strauss. Allister obviously wanted his experience and wisdom and Adriaan is a quality Test performer. His accuracy at the lineout is second to none as is his scrummaging, so his set-pieces are always at a high level and he contributed around the park.
I guess the results haven’t been as he would have expected and it’s been a difficult year. But he cares deeply about the game. He’s not a tub-thumping sort of captain, but he speaks intelligently and demands high standards.
The Springboks have just not been able to get their all-round game going but the set-pieces have been really solid, so he has done his job.
For Saturday, the defence of the Springboks really has to improve. The work-rate has to be a lot higher to set the breakdown pillars properly before the attack gets in place. The ability of the defence to force turnovers will be crucial because Australia will take the ball at the Boks in hand. The side they have picked is very attack-minded.
The other really huge battle of the game will be the lineout. New Zealand really exposed flaws in the Australian lineout in the two Bledisloe Cup Tests and the Springboks definitely have an advantage having picked four lineout jumpers to combat three.
I would expect us to continue to produce good ball on our own throw and hopefully disrupt their lineout to give them poor set-piece ball to attack from.
In 2013, the Springboks broke the Brisbane hoodoo, scoring four tries to zero. Hopefully on Saturday they can do the same again.
John McFarland is the assistant coach of the Kubota Spears in Japan and was the Springbok defence coach from 2012-15, having won three SuperRugby titles (2007, 09, 10) with the Bulls and five Currie Cup crowns with the Blue Bulls. In all, he won 28 trophies during his 12 years at Loftus Versfeld.