England in SA
Second-row angst for Heyneke
Juandre Kruger (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Just a few weeks ago, healthy speculation still swirled about which of Victor Matfield
or Andries Bekker
would be the lineout supremo for the Springboks in the Test series against England.
Suddenly new Bok coach Heyneke Meyer
will have neither No 5 lock at his disposal, with the start of the three-match series just a week and a half out.
A comeback for the great Matfield always seemed unlikely, given his complete inactivity for several months, and then confirmation from the International Rugby Board a few days ago anyway that he would be ineligible under stipulations for retired players.
Still, in the freakishly tall, 2.08-metre Stormers favourite Bekker seemed to lie a very comforting Plan B, at the very least ... until Wednesday’s bombshell from his Super Rugby camp that his lower back, an old bogey for him, is playing up once more and will keep him out of the franchise - and almost certainly by extension international - picture for some five weeks.
Bekker is a fairly seasoned and generally proven Test player so his inheriting of Matfield’s mantle as the chief aerial banker, plus spoiler of opposition throw-in plans, appeared a virtual fait accompli.
But now Meyer has something much closer to a serious problem.
For although the Bulls’ suitably athletic second-rower Juandre Kruger offers solid credentials for a Bok debut against England at Mr Price Kings Park on Saturday week - few other No 5s in the country can stick up their hands with any great conviction at present - the very fact that he would be a debutant is a drawback of more than just usual magnitude.
That is because, with Bekker assumed to be in the mix, the blooding of 20-year-old Eben Etzebeth, a revelation in Super Rugby 2012, in the “front lock” position would not have seemed too radical a move.
Now that Bekker has seemingly cried off, Meyer faces the infinitely more risky situation of potentially fielding two uncapped locks - Etzebeth and Kruger - against the street-wise and unyielding pack likely to be put out by England.
That may just sway him toward preferring Kruger’s Bulls team-mate Flip van der Merwe, even if something of a yellow-card liability, to Etzebeth at No 4 and comforting himself in the fact that a familiar provincial combination would at least be in service for the Boks.
Van der Merwe does already boast a double-figure tally of caps for South Africa, although some of those are as a substitute, and at 118kg and a shade under two metres has the physical credentials for the No 4 task.
But he has not quite done enough yet to suggest that he is a genuinely worthy, regular Test player.
Here’s another thought: half of the old “Blood Brothers” combination for the country - Matfield and Bakkies Botha
- may be deemed fully out to pasture now, but Botha is still a prominent figure for Toulon in French rugby.
Might there be some necessarily hastened, fresh overtures to the 32-year-old as experience becomes more of an issue for the Boks?
That is just another lock-related topic for Meyer to start chewing on with some urgency ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing