Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber. Picture: SHAUN ROY/BACKPAGEPIX
Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber. Picture: SHAUN ROY/BACKPAGEPIX

Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber raised eyebrows when he announced his team for Saturday’s first Test against the British & Irish Lions in Cape Town.

Nienaber named several players who have either recovered from injury, or Covid-19, in his line-up for the clash that may well set the tone for the rest of the series.

Lock Lood de Jager‚ who has played no rugby in the build-up to the series after shoulder and ankle injuries, has been selected on the bench‚ while Rugby World Cup hero Makazole Mapimpi, who has also been absent in the final preparations due to Covid-19‚ is in the starting team on the left wing.

There will inevitably be questions about the battle readiness of De Jager and Mapimpi who, comparatively speaking‚ have seen little combat this year.

“They have been part of the squad since 2018‚” was the coach’s reminder. “We have worked with them extensively and we have worked with them for long. We are comfortable they will slot in.”

Though they have not played‚ they were part of the Springbok preparation and training since the Bok group assembled on June 5.

Captain Siya Kolisi, who was also had Covid-19 and who has not played since the opening Test against Georgia‚ has been given the green light‚ as has hooker Bongi Mbonambi who has emerged from recent self -isolation.

“It is very important‚” said Nienaber about Kolisi’s availability. “He knows our structure and knows what we want to do. He brings calmness. Very happy to have him back.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the omission from the starting line-up of props Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff, who will come off the bench. Ox Nché and Trevor Nykane are the starters.

The pair’s absence from the starting team is perhaps in part explained by the former’s recent Covid-19-related self-isolation.

“We have quality options in the front row‚” Nienaber pointed out. “Is it more important to sing the anthem or be on field at the final whistle? There are a few things you have to achieve starting and also off the bench‚ like with the Bomb Squad.

“We see our frontrowers as a pairing‚” said Nienaber about the Stormers’ prop combo.

“Ox has certain things he has to achieve starting. Steven’s is different coming off the bench. Ox has nice line speed‚ also in the chase lines after kicks. We are fortunate to have such quality props‚” Nienaber said.

Lingering questions, however, are being asked of Nyakane’s form‚ not just when he played against the Lions for SA A‚ but from earlier in the season. Nienaber had a terse response. “Daan [Human‚ the scrum coach] would have sorted that out. I’m very comfortable with Trevor.”

On the bench, the same questions could be asked of scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies’s inclusion ahead of Cobus Reinach. “Cobus has been phenomenal for us. He is banging really hard on the door. That is actually a nice thing to have‚” Nienaber said.

Much touted loose forward Jasper Wiese did not make the match 23 but Rynhardt Elstadt‚ who was unlucky to miss out on Rugby World Cup selection in 2019‚ is on the bench.

There is no Bomb Squad this time as the Boks opted for a more conventional five/three split on the bench. Nienaber considered a six/two split too risky given the lack of match fitness and sharpness around the squad.

“Handré [Pollard] has not been involved in a lot of rugby. Mapimpi as well. We will go six/two if available to us.”

Nienaber named Pollard vice-captain.

Springbok team to play the British & Irish Lions: Willie le Roux; Cheslin Kolbe‚ Lukhanyo Am‚ Damian de Allende‚ Makazole Mapimpi; Handré Pollard‚ Faf de Klerk; Kwagga Smith‚ Pieter-Steph du Toit‚ Siya Kolisi (capt); Franco Mostert‚ Eben Etzebeth; Trevor Nyakane‚ Bongi Mbonambi‚ Ox Nché. Substitutes: Malcolm Marx‚ Steven Kitshoff‚ Frans Malherbe‚ Lood de Jager‚ Rynhardt Elstadt; Herschel Jantjies‚ Elton Jantjies‚ Damian Willemse.

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