Jacques Nienaber has confirmed that his plans for his first team selection as Springbok coach were changed because of the positive Covid tests that were turned in by three players on Sunday.
The team for the first test against Georgia in Pretoria on Friday night includes two new caps in the starting unit in the form of wings Rosko Specman and Aphelele Fassi, while Jasper Wiese is the only debutant on the bench, but some eyebrows might have been raised by the absence of Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi.
According to Nienaber, the absence of the two World Cup final heroes – Am was the chief creator of Mapimpi’s try in that game – and the selection of Fassi out of position on the wing was due to the Covid tests and, by inference, which squad members had been in contact with the infected players. Sbu Nkosi, Vincent Koch and Herschel Jantjies, who was subsequently cleared, were the players who tested positive in Sunday’s PCR tests.
“We picked a side on Saturday evening but hadn’t announced it going into Sunday and then we had the Covid issues,” said Nienaber.
“I don’t want to go into too much detail but also want to be as transparent as possible. Guys like Lukhanyo and Makazole were influenced by that. When the Covid cases came out they went into isolation, so that was when guys like Aphelele and also Jesse Kriel came into the team.”
APHELELE THE NATURAL FIT WHEN WINGS WERE NEEDED
Fassi has played almost all of his rugby for the Cell C Sharks as a fullback but with Cheslin Kolbe not considered because Nienaber wants to give him a rest after his appearance in last week’s Top14 final in France, and Nkosi obviously out because he has Covid, Nienaber saw him as a natural fit given how he went when standing in at wing in training.
“Aphelele trained with us at the conditioning camps as a wing and he went really well there. When you are working with a squad it is useful to have a player who can play other positions. Aphelele is a talented player with a massive skill set, we felt comfortable picking him on the wing even though he has played his franchise rugby predominantly at fullback.”
Nienaber added that having a vocal player like Kriel at centre would help the two wing debutants, and ditto the experienced Willie le Roux at fullback.
“I must say I am very excited for the wings who are coming in for their first game as they really trained well in the conditioning camps in Bloemfontein, and obviously the importance of having Willie, who has played a lot of international rugby, and Jesse, who is really vocal, to help them along can’t be underestimated. Handre Pollard at flyhalf is also important in that regard.”
WIESE KNOCKED THE SELECTION DOOR OPEN
When it came to the other newcomer, Wiese, the Bok coach said it was a case of the Leicester Tiger No8 just making a massive statement as a player in the English Premiership.
“We followed Jasper closely in the English Premiership and he just knocked down the door in terms of performance. He is excellent on the drive and at stopping, at carrying the ball and has all the attributes we are looking for,” said Nienaber.
While there are newcomers and some inexperienced players, Sharks prop Ox Nche is the only player, with one international cap, who is part of the starting tight five against Georgia who has not been around the block a bit as a test player. Nienaber says that is not by accident.
“If look at Georgia play it becomes obvious they are No12 in the world for a reason,” he said.
“We have done our homework on them and we saw them produce some good performances in last year’s Autumn Cup. They came very close against Wales, where they were in the game until the 75th minute. We know where their strengths are and we will have to work hard to get a foothold in Friday night’s game.
“They are a strong set piece team, they are also really good at mauling and bring a lot of physicality and ball carries,” added the Bok coach.
SEVERAL PLAYERS NOT CONSIDERED
While the team for Friday is the strongest in terms of what outcome the Bok management is aiming at, Nienaber said there were several players who were unavailable because of injuries and also because of logistical reasons.
“Some players are still carrying injuries and are going through return to rugby protocols. And then there quite literally some guys who only came in later. I’m talking about the players who were involved in the Premiership semifinals and in the Top14 final in France.
“They arrived late in camp and we had spent a lot of time working with the other guys in the squad so we went with them for this game. Guys like Lood de Jager are on their way back from injuries. The news on Lood is quite good. He would have played for Sale had they made their final. RG Snyman and Damian de Allende of course were burn victims at Munster and are also working on getting themselves back.”
15-Willie le Roux, 14-Rosko Specman, 13-Jesse Kriel, 12-Frans Steyn, 11-Aphelele Fassi, 10-Handre Pollard, 9-Kobus Reinach, 8-Kwagga Smith, 7-Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6-Siya Kolisi (capt), 5-Franco Mostert, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Trevor Nyakane, 2-Bongi Mbonambi, 1-Ox Noche
Replacements: 16-Malcolm Marx, 17-Steven Kitshoff, 18-Frans Malherbe, 19-Marvin Orie, 20-Jasper Wiese, 21-Herschel Jantjies, 22-Elton Jantjies, 23-Damian Willemse.