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Jake White on Marx's replacement: 'There's no debate'

OPINION: Firstly, having seen the news about Malcolm Marx’s knee injury, can I say how disappointed I am for him on a personal level. It’s a massive loss.

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For me, he’s probably the best hooker in the world and his loss seriously diminishes the Bomb Squad, which was already weakened with the loss of Lood de Jager and Frans Steyn.

Marx’s limited game time has been a victim of the system. If you look at Jamie George, how many Tests does he play for 70 minutes? Or Julian Montoya, who plays 75 minutes with a Test centurion Creevy on the bench. It shows you the importance of that elite hooker role but I need to stress that his role off the bench is not a question of strength in depth. It’s because the Boks use a different system where they use two different front rows. I don’t think there’s a contest between him and any other hooker in South Africa.

With every bit of bad news, however, could come a silver lining, and it would amaze me if tickets weren’t being purchased right now for Handre Pollard to be flying to the South of France. Now it’s a fluid situation, so I don’t know whether the regulations allow a back to come in for a forward, but there has already been a precedent in this tournament because the All Blacks brought in Ethan Blackadder for Emoni Narawa; a back-row for a wing.

I’d ask, why can’t you bring in a flyhalf for a hooker? Reading between the lines, I read that Deon Fourie or Marco van Staaden were pencilled in as emergency hooker cover anyway and they’re ensconced within the camp. And if the regulations say, you have to replace a front-row specialist for another front-row player, why can’t they select Handre as a hooker – he’s certainly big enough!

The story continues below…

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Seriously though, while this is tough on Manie Libbok who is a very talented player, you’re talking about bringing a World Cup winner coming into camp, so there’s no debate, and it softens the blow. I would think that, generally, any player who’s in that position would understand that if a guy, who has been there and done it, comes in and takes your place it’s not for any other reason that it’s in the best interests of the team. Look at England, they have a similar conundrum with Owen Farrell and what to do with him after George Ford’s heroics against Argentina. Indeed, the true test of great teams is when the player accepts it and doesn’t challenge it. It’s easy to say when you’re the starter, but a lot more difficult if you’re the player who’s missed out. Having looked at where Manie was a year or two ago, to now playing in a World Cup and losing a game or two to a World Cup winner, I would genuinely think that he has reasons to be positive.

So why is Pollard’s call-up so crucial? Well, look at the sharp end of World Cups. If you delve into the history books, there are not many tries scored in the semifinals and finals, and therefore place kicking becomes a premium in those knockout games. Sure, you can mostly get away with a few miscues in the Pool stages, but in semifinals and finals, drop-kicks and penalty kicks win you World Cups. It’s as simple as that.

Huge injuries happen in every tournament and you have to deal with it. It was devastating for Romain Ntamack to miss this World Cup and our very own Jean de Villiers had terrible luck at World Cups but at least they made it. One of the most unlucky Springboks ever was Gary Teichmann. His first Test was the one after the winning 1995 World Cup and his final Test was one Test before the 1999 World Cup. Think about that. You play four years, you are one of the most successful Springbok captains ever, you go on – at the time – the longest unbeaten run ever, you play in teams that won Tri-Nations, around some of the greatest players in the world and you never play in a World Cup. Sometimes fate is a cruel mistress, but I’m sure Malcolm will be back.

So how did I view this first weekend of games? Well, after their loss to France, New Zealand are fully aware that they are going to be facing South Africa or Ireland in the quarterfinal. That’s a dead-cert. They have four weeks to prepare for a do-or-die knockout game. The difference between them and the Springboks and Ireland, is that they can treat the remaining games as a training period exercise, whereas Ireland still have to duke it out with South Africa, Scotland and Tonga. The difference between those schedules is night and day. For the big boys in Pool B, that means Monday’s a light session, Tuesday’s a bit tough, Wednesday’s off, Thursday’s a bit of high-intensity run out, Friday’s captain’s run and Saturday’s a massive game. It’s relentless.

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For Ian Foster, he has to use this time carefully. He has to work on the specifics that are going to down South Africa or Ireland; stopping the maul, neutering the scrum, whatever it takes. If I was in his shoes, I would train Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and even Friday, if I have to. Then matchday is a checklist of the things practiced this week. Then next week I would repeat it and again the next. There is nothing to stop them from doing a scrum session on a Friday if it’s going to help them a few weeks down the line because it would be the mother shock of all shocks if they lost to Namibia, Italy or Uruguay.

As for the Boks, they have one free hit against Romania. I see they have picked four scrumhalves in the squad against Romania. Grant Williams is in as wing cover, Cobus (Reinach) and Jaden Hendrikse are the No.9s and Faf (De Klerk) is No.10 cover, which in the light of recent events, could now be futile if Handre is parachuted back in.

For the Boks, they can prepare how they want, because behind the scenes, they are preparing for Ireland.

It’s funny, now that the World Cup has started, opposition coaches are now scrutinising selections. Take Andy Farrell. I’m sure he is reading between the lines who is playing against Ireland. It’s like a game of chess, or Battleships that you played as a kid. Likewise, Jacques Nienaber will be reading between the lines at the 23 Ireland are picking for Tonga. It’s strategy, kidology, call it what you want, but the mind games are definitely there. A key part of being successful at a World Cup is how quickly you can adapt to what’s happening in and around you.

As for what the Springboks can take from that opening hit out against Scotland game, it’s the defensive strategy – and I reference that loosely – I think it caught Scotland napping because they looked as though Townsend’s men couldn’t manipulate the ball out wide much. A guy like Duhan van der Merwe, who is very threatening, was starved of the ball and didn’t get a chance to show what he could do. Likewise, Darcy Graham, a very dangerous runner, was largely kept quiet. Knowing Ireland, they will have looked at that and thought, ‘what will we do if we get the same defensive pictures rushing up at us?’. That ploy worked for us, but I’m not sure it can be repeated.

Offensively, I told someone this (Thursday) morning that the one break Graham made, when he didn’t pass the ball outside, would have been finished by Ireland. They’re an extremely clinical side, which is probably why they’re the No.1 side in the world.

The countdown is well and truly on and the Springboks will have to do it without Malcolm Marx.

By Jake White, @RugbyPass

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