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Mixed feelings over Boks' controversial bench split

OPINION: The discussion around the Springboks’ seven-one split between forwards and backs on the bench for the Test against New Zealand last week has caused a lot of reaction around the world.

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Let’s just put it in perspective – SA Rugby Director of Rugby, Rassie Erasmus, and coach Jacques Nienaber opted not to risk reserve back Willie le Roux because of a rib injury and replaced him with Kwagga Smith.

This took the South African bench, the so-called ‘bomb squad’, to another level by choosing a seven-one forwards/backs split on the bench.

That meant the Springboks were able to replace their entire pack early in the second half.

The 28-point deficit victory for the Boks was the All Blacks’ heaviest defeat in their history, with the emphatic statement sending shockwaves throughout the rugby landscape, less than two weeks to the competition.

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A lot of rugby pundits have weighed in on the comments that erupted all over social media.

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Springbok loose forward Dan du Preez was asked to comment by the Rapport newspaper over the weekend: “We saw a 7-1 bench for the first time … and how it worked! This is the first time I have seen it.

“The way we play, and the fact that we put such a big onus on set-piece, could be the reasons why the Boks might also follow that route in the World Cup.

“Having worked with Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, it doesn’t surprise me when they try new things.

“When they chose a six-two bench at the last World Cup, pundits said they were crazy, and look how well it worked. They don’t come up with plans just for the fun of it. They know what they are doing.”

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But former Scotland coach Matt Williams felt the Springboks are now ‘abusing’ the original purpose of the reserves.

“The South Africans are just abusing the bench at the moment,” Williams told OTB Monday Night Rugby podcast.

“The bench came in all for safety reasons. People didn’t come on for positions they weren’t trained for so we weren’t putting back rowers in the front row. Everything was done for a reason.

“They had seven forwards [against New Zealand]. Seven forwards… really? Seriously? And World Rugby has just got to act on this.”

However, it seems Williams is not supported by many in his extreme views on the subject.

Another former Wallaby, fullback and wing Drew Mitchell, took to Twitter to add his voice to the discussion.

“I can’t understand the uproar over the @Springboks 7-1 bench!!

“Ppl [people] are only complaining because it worked.. If it back-fired, nobody would be saying it’s against the spirit of the game.

“You play to your strengths, SA did that!!

“Find a way to beat it, not complain..”

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Former Springbok Kaya Malotana, a coach and rugby commentator, is of the opinion that other coaches will now work out new ways to find solutions for the Bok innovation.

“So Rassie and Jacques upgraded the Bomb Squad to the Nuke Squad clearly. I know the experiment was purposeful. Watch the other coaches scramble now to find a solution to the 7/1 bench split🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣 I love that guy from Despatch I swear🤞”

Joey Mongalo, one of the Sharks coaches, told Rugby365: “At high performance level, everyone seeks their X-factor, something that the other teams cannot do. So if we have the opportunity to go for a 7-1 split in a warm-up game, why not? And the subsequent reaction just shows you how nervous it makes people and what an incredible pack we have.

“If Ireland or New Zealand did the same, everyone would have said it is a wow thing. But just because it is South Africa and we do it a bit different, everyone wants to make noise about it.

“That doesn’t make sense to me. If they can’t stop our wow factor, and not through talking, but with their forwards – if they can’t, it is what it is. I hope all the referees at the World Cup will reward us for our physical dominance. If we get that reward, it will be difficult to stop us.”

Ross Tucker is a sports scientist who currently works as a research scientist for World Rugby, with a particular interest in injury prevention and management.

He started an interesting thread on Twitter about this topic and the effect of the subs and the adage that ‘fewer subs will reduce injury risk’.

The full thread can be found here:

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