By Liam Napier in Paris
How successful the All Blacks are in countering the notorious Springboks ‘bomb squad’ could make or break their World Cup final. It’s not how you start but how you finish, after all. This notion – and one immovable match-winning South African – has the All Blacks on red alert.
Detonating their explosive bomb squad bench won the Springboks their semifinal against England. It really is that simple. Trailing 15-6 midway through the second half, the defending World Cup champions seemed destined to depart before unleashing their bench to completely alter the script.
While Handre Pollard’s clutch kicking won plaudits, Boks prop Ox Nche was at the centre of South Africa’s dark arts revival by repeatedly chewing up and spitting out English tightheads Dan Cole and Kyle Sinckler.
Scrummaging might not be your vision of a spritz on the Cote d’Azur but in Nche, the Boks wait for the opportune time to uncork their vintage cellar vin.
It was Nche’s scrum penalty that led to towering lock RG Snyman scoring the semifinal’s only try from a maul. Nche and Vincent Koch dominated five second-half scrums - the last shunt earning the penalty that handed Pollard the chance to slot the 78th-minute match-winning kick.
These moments, those scrums, ultimately sneaked the Boks into successive World Cup finals.
Nche’s game-changing efforts captured everyone’s attention – none more so than All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan.
“Telling you mate, it does. He is some human, isn’t he? Wow,” Ryan said of Nche in his best South African accent. “He is pretty strong at what he does but we’ve got a pretty good plan we believe in as well. We’ll be up for it.”
Behind the scenes Ryan is sure to be working overtime with scrum coach Greg Feek on perhaps the least sexy yet most important area of the finale in Paris.
In this regard, the All Blacks face one pressing selection question.
At this stage of the tournament there’s no need for major changes – despite injury whispers circling Richie Mo’unga the influential playmaker is expected to front.
With Nche’s scrummaging prowess in mind, though, the All Blacks must determine whether to stay the course with 23-year-old tighthead Fletcher Newell on the bench or promote Nepo Laulala behind Tyrel Lomax.
The All Blacks favoured Newell and fellow young Crusaders prop Tamaiti Williams over veterans Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Laulala for their superior mobility, particularly on defence, in their last two knockout victories against Ireland and Argentina.
Toulouse-bound Laulala is, however, regarded as one of the world’s best scrummaging anchors. With mobility not such a driving force against the confrontational South African pack, Laulala could be favoured over Newell with the sole view to neutralise Nche’s second-half power.
The other selection decision comes at lock – which way around Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock start their final tests. Retallick started the quarter-final success against Ireland; Whitelock the semifinal against the Pumas.
Throughout the World Cup the All Blacks have maintained selections are based on the opposition. For the Boks the stronger scrummager of the two veteran locks – possibly Retallick – could be held in reserve.
Meeting fire with fire off the bench isn’t the only way to counter the Boks’ bomb squad.
If the All Blacks impose their tempo on the contest by minimising stoppages, keeping the ball in play where possible, they will attempt to zap the Boks’ legs. Start well, build a lead and the All Blacks could force the Boks to inject their bench early.
In theory at least, the All Blacks should have more in the tank after their comfortable semifinal victory over the Pumas.
“It would be good to take some gas out of that bomb, wouldn’t it,” Ryan said. “They have got their DNA as a forward pack. We’ve got trust in our plan this week and we believe we will be able to be there right until the end.”
While the Boks’ bomb squad is well established the All Blacks have consistently tinkered with their bench by switching their halfbacks, locks, hookers. Dalton Papali’i, since Sam Cane’s return from injury, has been a constant presence. When the Boks’ bomb explodes, Papali’i expresses confidence the All Blacks reserves he dubs ‘Easy Company’ will hold their own in those crucial closing stages.
“I’ll tell you a quick story,” Papali’i said. “I’ve got a little group happening in the team room at our hotel and we’re watching Band of Brothers [the TV series about] the 101st Airborne and their Easy Company. So, I made a little joke saying, ‘you know they’ve got the bomb squad, so we could have the Easy Company. We want to go and finish the job and be in the trenches’.
“Talking about the bomb squad, man they’ve proven themselves. They can come on and change a game like that so we need to identify whoever is on the bench and be really screwed on up top and give it hell.”
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Liam Napier has been a sports journalist since 2010, and his work has taken him to World Cups in rugby, netball and cricket, boxing world title fights and Commonwealth Games.
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