South Africa go big and bold with reboot of forward heavy bench against Ireland | Rugby World Cup 2023

Rugby World Cup 2023

  • Springboks opt for 7-1 split in favour of forwards in reserve
  • Etzebeth fit to play for South Africa with Libbok starting at 10

Tue 19 Sep 2023 13.50 EDT

The influential Eben Etzebeth is fit to face Ireland this weekend and has been included in a power-laden South Africa side for the pivotal Pool B match at the Stade de France on Saturday. The Springboks have also opted to roll out a forward-dominated bench with just one backline specialist among their replacements.

Etzebeth missed South Africa’s game against Romania with a sore shoulder which had previously forced him off early against Scotland but is back for one of the biggest collisions of the tournament to date. A Springbok win would effectively cement them as pool winners and leave Ireland sweating on their game against Scotland to guarantee qualification for the knockout stages.

The Boks have resisted the temptation to rush back Handré Pollard, preferring instead to retain Manie Libbok as their starting 10, with Cobus Reinach named as their only replacement back. Reinach is usually a scrum-half but can operate on the wing, with the full-back Damian Willemse also able to cover both fly-half and centre if needed.

The last time South Africa opted for a 7-1 split they steamrollered New Zealand in a warm-up Test at Twickenham last month. That successful trial has clearly encouraged them to repeat the experiment against the world’s No 1-ranked side, who are also the reigning Six Nations grand slam champions.

Bongi Mbonambi will be the starting hooker in the absence of the injured Malcolm Marx but otherwise the pack, led by Siya Kolisi, has a settled look. The only significant difference will be the Boks’ use of their third-choice kit because their first two strips, when in close proximity to the green of Ireland, have been deemed either too similar or unsuitable for colour-blind viewers.

Bongi Mbonambi is South Africa’s starting hooker against Ireland. Photograph: Steve Haag Sports/Shutterstock

Wales, meanwhile, believe their hard-earned win against Fiji has left them well-placed psychologically for their key pool game against Eddie Jones’s Australia on Sunday. Tommy Reffell is still nursing a tight calf while Leigh Halfpenny also missed training but the rest of the squad were put through a tough session at their tree-lined base near Versailles in preparation for the qualification-shaping fixture.

The attack coach, Alex King, suggested there had been “a good edge” to Welsh training and thinks the players will rise to the big occasion against a wounded Wallabies side who were beaten by Fiji on Sunday. “They’ll be hurting a little bit after the weekend,” King said.

“We understand it’s going to be pretty much do or die for them. But [our players] are a tough group, a band of brothers who have lived together for the last 16 weeks. We understand that in a massive game against Australia we have to take our chances and we need to ask them some questions in attack. If we get our discipline, accuracy and set piece spot on, we will be very a hard team to beat.”

Warren Gatland’s vast experience will be a further boost, reckons King, ahead of a potentially tense encounter. “Sunday is a massive game there’s no shying away from that, but Warren has been there and done it so it’s great to have him around us. This is his fifth Rugby World Cup, which no other coach has done. He understands when to push players and coaches and when to pull back. Then he lets the players lead as the week develops. He’s a very experienced coach.”

Australia will also be without the prop Taniela Tupou and their skipper Will Skelton but King says their absence does not automatically give his team an edge. “World Cups are not about one or two players, they are about squad depth. Of course you want the best players playing, but the guys coming in will be proud players. We are not looking at individuals, it is about the team as a whole.”

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