South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber is anticipating a closely-contested showdown with France on Sunday as he relishes the prospect of his defending champions being part of this weekend’s blockbuster World Cup quarter-final double-header in Paris.
The four top-ranked teams in the world lock horns at Stade de France on successive nights, with Ireland facing New Zealand on Saturday before the Boks face tournament hosts Les Bleus the following evening.
Nienaber expects a couple of “humdingers” to illuminate the global showpiece.
“It’s going to be two massive games,” he said. “In the build-up to the quarter-final, the big question that came up numerous times was ‘who would you pick (to play)?’ and I don’t think there’s an easy one.
“If you look at the last couple of performances of New Zealand, especially against Italy, it’s going to be a tough game for Ireland also.
“Ireland are on form, New Zealand are on form, we are on form and France are on form so I think it will be two humdingers.
“The teams that are playing each other in Paris this weekend are four teams on form and it’s going to be tough for every team. It’s going to boil down to execution on the day and taking opportunities on the day.”
The other two quarter-finals take place in Marseille, with Wales against Argentina and England facing Fiji.
Nienaber has not given any consideration to the possibility of his team going home after Sunday’s match although he believes every team still in the competition will fancy their chances of reaching the semi-finals.
“Yeah, obviously,” he said when asked if he was preparing to still be at the tournament next week. “Since we started in 2020, our aim was to win the World Cup otherwise why are we even in it?
“We are preparing to give it our best shot. We knew since the draw was made that the quarter-final was probably going to be against France or New Zealand so it was always going to be a big game whichever team we played. It will be the same for Ireland and New Zealand.
“I believe the other quarter-finals (in Marseille) also will be good. They’re not as highly ranked by World Rugby but at a World Cup we don’t look at that a lot.
“All the quarter-finals I think will be closely contested and I think all the teams will be preparing to go to the semi-finals.”
Nienaber has selected scrum-half Cobus Reinach to start in place of Faf de Klerk, while Duane Vermeulen gets the nod over Jasper Wiese at number eight. Manie Libbok retains his place at stand-off ahead of kicking specialist Handre Pollard, who is among the replacements.
“The World Cup is a long competition,” said the head coach, explaining why he has made a couple of key personnel tweaks from the team that started their last big match against Ireland three weeks ago.
“If you look back at 2019, we basically did the same. There were lots of changes. We believe you have to manage the load of the players.
“In the southern hemisphere we come straight out of the Rugby Championship and into a World Cup so we had four games in Rugby Championship then two warm-up games against Wales and New Zealand so we are now 10 games into our season.
“We have tried to manage the load of all the players so that they are ready for the important stage – the knockout stage – of the competition. It worked for us in 2019.
“We are in a fortunate position that if you look at our squad there is not a lot of difference between our players.
“I think whether we selected Cobus or Faf, I don’t think a lot of people would have raised their eyebrows. Cobus is playing exceptional rugby.”
Nienaber – who famously went for a bold 7/1 bench split in the August warm-up match against the All Blacks – has opted for a 5/3 on this occasion.
“I know people will look at it and say that we are going away from our identity but if you look at the last big final we played in, against the British and Irish Lions, we went with a 5/3 split and Morne Steyn was selected,” pointed out Nienaber.
“He kicked the last penalty to give us the victory in the series so it’s not like we haven’t done 5/3s in big games before.
“Maybe if people don’t follow us that often, because we haven’t done it that often in the World Cup, it might be seen as strange but we have definitely played big games with 5/3 before.”
South Africa team to face France in Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final
Forwards: 1 Steven Kitshoff (Ulster), 2 Bongi Mbonambi (Hollywoodbets Sharks), 3 Frans Malherbe (DHL Stormers), 4 Eben Etzebeth (Hollywoodbets Sharks), 5 Franco Mostert (Honda Heat), 6 Siya Kolisi (CAPTAIN, Racing 92), 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit (Toyota Verblitz), 8 Duane Vermeulen (SA Rugby)
Backs: 9 Cobus Reinach (Montpellier), 10 Manie Libbok (DHL Stormers), 11 Cheslin Kolbe (Suntory Sungoliath), 12 Damian de Allende (Wild Knights), 13 Jesse Kriel (Canon Eagles), 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse (Vodacom Bulls), 15 Damian Willemse (DHL Stormers)
Replacements: 16 Deon Fourie (DHL Stormers), 17 Ox Nche (Hollywoodbets Sharks), 18 Vincent Koch (Hollywoodbets Sharks), 19 RG Snyman (Munster), 20 Kwagga Smith (Shizuoka Blue Revs), 21 Faf de Klerk (Canon Eagles), 22 Handre Pollard (Leicester Tigers), 23 Willie le Roux (Vodacom Bulls)