Peter Bills: Boks must sort out critical selection issues

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Victor Matfield of the Springboks points to Schalk Burger of the Springboks. Photo / Getty Images
Victor Matfield of the Springboks points to Schalk Burger of the Springboks. Photo / Getty Images

The South Africans who flew back to Wellington at the weekend must have indulged in a fair amount of head-scratching.

If there was understandable elation at the significant Samoan challenge overcome, there have to be discussions about the way the Springboks struggled to victory.

Discussion in some quarters focused on Welsh referee Nigel Owens and his tendency, whether intended or not, to award just about every 50-50 decision to South Africa. That made life hard for the Samoans and frustrated them. Fullback Paul Williams' absurd foul on Heinrich Brussow epitomised that frustration.

However, it was revealing that the IRB's disciplinary officials announced within 24 hours of Williams' sending-off that no further punishment would be warranted. A red card was grossly over the top. It should have been yellow but it was perhaps exacerbated by Brussow's absurd "Hollywood".

But notwithstanding that, the pounding the South Africans took in the second half would not have made comfortable viewing for their coaching staff. It seemed, as Victor Matfield said later, as though the Springboks went to sleep in the second half. Certainly, most of the intensity in the final 40 minutes came from Samoa.

Indeed, but for the best defensive performance by any side in this World Cup to date, South Africa would have struggled to get home. Here, the human dynamo that is Schalk Burger was at his best. His covering all over the field, the courage he shows as a trademark quality and his commitment at the breakdown were key qualities in holding the fort.

For sure, the back row combination in the Springbok pack looks right. Burger and Brussow bring many varied talents to the party and are a highly effective duo.

Perhaps the Springboks' two biggest decisions to ponder, leaving aside the considerable loss of Frans Steyn, lie either side of the back row: at lock and at halfback. The key in both cases must be pace and intensity, the ability to carry. No one, apart from the Springbok coaches, knows how fit Bakkies Botha is. But unless he can carry and get around the field in the way he has done in the past, then a tough decision ought to be made. Danie Rossouw should start. And the selectors might consider Botha and Matfield at lock and Rossouw at No 8.

But a question mark exists against many of the Springbok forwards on the disturbing evidence of the second half against Samoa. Do they still have the "legs" for the full 80 minutes? But with that point in mind, I think the Boks would be crazy to leave one of their best "carriers", Bismarck du Plessis, on the bench at the start of the quarter-final.

The second issue concerns halfback. Fourie du Preez has looked a shadow of his old self at this tournament. He breaks so rarely now that marking him has become straightforward; he will either pass or box kick.

Francois Hougaard has searing pace and is a dynamic presence at the scrum base. His ability to break and the consequent threat he offers brings a zip to the Boks' game that du Preez is just not offering.

These selection issues should dominate the thinking of the Springbok coaches this week. Almost certainly, their decisions will be critical to the South Africans' chances of hanging on to their trophy.

Peter Bills is a rugby writer for Independent News & Media in London

- NZ Herald

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