There may be a silver lining in South Africa’s decision to go into the Rugby World Cup semi-finals without Cheslin Kolbe, unquestionably one of the most exciting attacking players in the game.
Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus picked S’bu Nkosi to replace Kolbe in the only change to his line-up for Sunday’s game against Wales, saying the flying winger hasn’t recovered from an ankle injury he picked up in the group stage and it adversely impacted his performance in last weekend’s 26-3 quarter-final win over Japan.
“Cheslin’s top-end speed and agility is probably one of the best in world rugby – that is definitely something we will miss,” Erasmus said. “But, aerially, [Nkosi] is right up there with what Cheslin and most of the best players in the world can do. And power-wise, he brings something totally different to the party.”
Asked if he would have risked playing Kolbe if it were the final, Erasmus may have given away his bigger picture strategy.
“A guy like Cheslin, there are two reasons why we didn’t select him,” Erasmus explained. “Hopefully we get to the final, and then he is fully fit.”
It’s the same reason he’s persisting with having six forwards on his eight-man bench to reinforce the starting XV against Wales.
“We’re playing with a 6-2 split because it really saves energy in your tight-five to spread the load,” he said. “Although people think it is putting more load on your backline players, playing six forwards takes a lot of pressure off your backs. It really helps a lot if you’ve got a tight-five that’s fresh – we’ve done some things to be in a better position for next week.”
Not that he’s taking Wales lightly, after South Africa lost all four meetings with the Welsh since beating them in the 2015 quarter-finals. Unlike the quarter-finals, though, there’s another game guaranteed with the winners advancing to the final and the losers this weekend playing off for bronze.
Erasmus has been widely praised for South Africa’s revival since he took over last season, reverting to the Springboks’ traditionally direct, physical style and winning the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship.
An opening loss to the All Blacks was a setback in Japan, but it meant avoiding New Zealand and England in the semi-finals.
Erasmus has stuck with his starting pack for three games, so there’s consistency, and there’s plenty of firepower out wide, even in the absence of Kolbe. Nkosi has scored eight tries in his first ten Tests. Makazole Mapimpi has scored five tries so far in the World Cup on the left wing, including a pair in the quarter-final, and has 13 tries in all in his first dozen Tests.
Losing Kolbe “is a big blow. Everybody knows the quality of player he is, and the contribution he has made,” Erasmus said. But “a 70 per cent Cheslin isn’t better than a 100 per cent S’bu. So, it is a blow, but we have full confidence in S’bu. He certainly deserves his chance.”
The Springboks squad contains ten players involved in the quarter-final win over Wales four years ago, and nine who are making a second semi-final appearance after losing to New Zealand four years ago.