Johannesburg - The Castle Lager Rugby Championship that starts this week will see the Springboks and their coach Heyneke Meyer heading further away from their comfort zone than in any other stage of the past two years.
The supersport.com website reports, whereas even in his first year as Bok coach, when he had to bring the side together just a few days before a series against England, Meyer was clear on the core or nucleus of his side, injuries and unavailability through overseas commitments have placed a few spokes in the wheel ahead of the 2014 edition of the Championship.
Fortunately for Meyer, he did have to start thinking outside the box during the June international season, which saw wins over a World XV, Wales twice and Scotland. Jean de Villiers, who had not missed a test during the Meyer era, was ruled out with injury, and the unavailability of Jaque Fourie and loss of form of JJ Engelbrecht saw him select JP Pietersen, normally a wing, at outside centre.
So a completely new midfield played together in June, and it looks likely that the man who missed out on that series of matches because of an untimely injury after selection, Damian de Allende, will now be added to the test team for Saturday’s opener against Argentina in Pretoria. Meyer is contending with the sort of change that he did not have to concern himself with before, when the team seemed a lot more settled.
At least in the June series, Meyer had the experienced and capable heads of Fourie du Preez and Victor Matfield present. The latter was chosen to the lead the side, while the former is the fulcrum around which so much happens for the Boks.
However, Du Preez is out for the rest of the season, and Matfield is out of the Argentina test. The injury that has ruled Matfield out can be seen as a warning that the veteran’s continued availability cannot be seen as a certainty as the knocks start to accumulate on his 37 year old body. Up to now the two year break Matfield enjoyed has been a benefit to him, but the effect of time away from rugby might be worn down by the unexpected workload that he has had to carry.
The initial plan was to ease Matfield back slowly, to manage him by playing him selectively, but it hasn’t worked out that way for two reasons – firstly, the man has just played so well that he forced his way into the selection frame as first choice, and secondly the injury to Pieter-Steph du Toit and to the first choice captain made it necessary for him to play all the games in June.
What does Meyer do if Matfield breaks down? We will get a better idea once we have seen his selection for Pretoria play together, and the same for the midfield, where De Allende could find himself playing his first test at the unfamiliar position of outside centre. There is one big question that hovers over De Allende – the WP player is talented, but does he have the pace for the No 13 jersey? He is quick off the mark but doesn’t have sustained pace, which is why there has often been reluctance on the part of WP and Stormers coaches to play him on the wing.
With Engelbrecht playing there last year, the Boks had pace to burn in the position, and ditto with Pietersen. We will know once De Allende has played there whether he fits the role, but that is the point – there are far more unknowns going into this year’s Championship than you would have expected there to be when the Boks finished off their 2013 season with a solid win over France in Paris.
That though might be a good thing, as it forces Meyer to look at other options. And so far the spreading of the net has produced positive results, with the older players feeding off the energy of the newcomers with great effect in the big win over Scotland last time out.
Looking ahead at the championship, there are two big mistakes the Boks could make. One would be to think that their quest is all about beating the All Blacks, for the Australians under Ewan McKenzie have grown considerably from the side that got smashed by four tries in Brisbane last September. Another would be to regard Ellis Park, the venue for the final match against New Zealand, as a banker, a game that they can expect to win and thus clinch the championship if they are in with a shout at that point.
The aura that Highveld venues once held as an impregnable fortress to opposition advances has long since been lost, with successive Soccer City wins by the All Blacks being followed up by their impressive 38-27 win at Ellis Park last year. In all those games it was the Kiwis who finished stronger, so Meyer is right when he acknowledges the superiority of both their mental strength and conditioning.
There is good reason why the All Blacks do well in Gauteng, as the conditions are tailored for the fast paced Kiwi game. The Boks probably have a better chance of beating the All Blacks in New Zealand, where the heavier underfoot conditions and possibility of wet weather might suit the South Africans more.
The reason that some critics were starting to see the Boks as a better World Cup bet than New Zealand after the last series of autumn internationals in the United Kingdom and Ireland was because the conditions over there do not suit the pace at which the Kiwis like to play.
Meyer, with his public statements at the start of the Bok training camp last week, appeared to be heeding the warning bells that started clanging during the Super Rugby season. He spoke about the need to abandon brawn and physical battery as the banker to South African rugby success.
Fortunately for the Boks though the rigid, kicking dominated approach we saw from the Sharks in Super Rugby hasn’t been their way now for a while. The main reason for that is Willie le Roux, whose unpredictability and creative abilities have been the catalyst for a transformation of the way the Boks play.
What is going to be interesting to see is what happens if Le Roux is injured or is exposed. Hyped though he is, the latter scenario is not completely beyond the realms of possibility if you consider that weaknesses in his game were exposed by the All Blacks at Ellis Park which led to him being dropped for the next test.
It would be a pity if it did happen, for Le Roux has been what has made the Boks look relatively new age in comparison with some of the Super Rugby teams.
Springbok Rugby Championship Schedule
16 August Argentina, Pretoria, 17:05
23 August Argentina, Salta, 21:40
6 September Australia, Perth, 12:05
13 September New Zealand, Wellington, 17:35
27 September Australia, Cape Town, 17:05
4 October New Zealand, Johannesburg 17:05