Rob Houwing

Boks have chopped dead wood

2014-08-04 07:34
port24 chief writer Rob Houwing (File)

Cape Town – The Springboks should at least start the 2014 Castle Rugby Championship broadly better equipped than when they finished last year’s version as the runners-up to New Zealand.

That prospect became likelier on Saturday as Heyneke Meyer announced his 30-player squad for the four-nation competition.

Over-analysis of the personnel he has opted for is ill-advised at this point, given the importance of the next few days to the coach on the Highveld – the Boks are in camp from Monday to Friday, then re-gather again from Sunday in the lead-up to the Loftus opener against Argentina on August 16 – for assessing the readiness of players who are back on board after stints of varying lengths as injury casualties.

Only as the entire group is put through its training and medical-assessment paces will it become really apparent who the favourites are to start against the Pumas.

There may be some fit-again customers (this pretty large group includes regular captain Jean de Villiers, Eben Etzebeth, Tendai Mtawarira, Frans Malherbe, Damian de Allende and Pat Lambie) for whom possible places in the run-on XV are deemed slightly ambitious at this point.

For example, Meyer may have been very partial for some time to the credentials of Etzebeth, but the rugged young No 4 lock has not begun a rugby match of any kind since the 2013 season-ending victory over France in Paris in late November when he badly injured an ankle – the next 10 days or so will be crucial in gauging whether he can be fast-tracked, or should be filtered in more cautiously.

There are notably few shocks in the squad named, with just two uncapped elements in Sharks scrumhalf Cobus Reinach (unlikely to become immediate first-choice No 9 anyway) and Stormers utility back De Allende, who was selected in the June window period but promptly, cruelly got injured.

Continuity and stability have been key pillars of Meyer’s philosophy and generally speaking that approach has paid dividends for him in the hot seat.

So perhaps more educative at this point than wondering about the XV to do duty against the Argentinean underdogs – things ought to get clearer at the start of the Test lead-up week – is to compare the selected party to the match-day 23 put out the last time the Boks lost a match.

That, of course, was the decisive, closing game of the 2013 Championship when the All Blacks, put impressively under the cosh early on at Ellis Park, kept their composure to outsmart and outlast South Africa in a 38-27 victory.

What quickly becomes noticeable is that Meyer appears to have “moved on” a year later, if you like, from questionable elements of his mix like fullback Zane Kirchner, centre JJ Engelbrecht and lock Juandre Kruger.

All three of those men started that Johannesburg thriller, but now cannot even find a place in a 30-strong group for the initial phase of the 2014 Championship.

An entirely different footballing beast to Kirchner, Willie le Roux was employed at more remote right wing against the All Blacks, but has subsequently become the undisputed, regular fullback and been hugely influential in giving the Bok backline as a whole a welcome degree of oomph and unpredictability on attack.

Similarly, Engelbrecht has slipped several notches down the midfield pecking order in South Africa, whilst Racing Metro-based second-rower Kruger will not be too heavily tipped now to add any more to his tally of 17 Bok caps, with a heap of young locks storming to the fore and lineout great Victor Matfield firmly back in the brew for this year’s Championship.

A couple of the substitutes who earned generous game-time in that last Bok loss in the Big Smoke, flank Siya Kolisi and versatile prop Coenie Oosthuizen, have also paid a price for innocuous form in this year’s Super Rugby competition, in particular.

The burly Oosthuizen did get reasonable opportunities on both sides of the Bok scrum during the June window and unfortunately looked a fish out of water both at tighthead, where he has been bravely experimenting, and even his more familiar loosehead when chosen to start there against Scotland.

It seems clear that his best chance of fighting back into the Bok mix – purists will be happy that a No 3 specialist in Malherbe has been restored as Jannie du Plessis’s back-up – will be to make a firm personal decision on which prop berth to focus on, and then stick to it.

A gut feel of many is that his ball-carrying abilities make him far best suited to the “looser” responsibilities of the No 1 role, although a complication is that the loosehead duty reportedly aggravates his problematic neck condition, so he is in a pretty unenviable situation ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    springboks  |  heyneke meyer  |  rugby

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