Kruger likely to fill Flip void
Juandré Kruger (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - The temptation to blood the blossoming talent of Pieter-Steph du Toit against the All Blacks on red-letter day at Ellis Park on Saturday may well be a surprisingly strong one for Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer
But if I were a betting man I’d expect pragmatism plus a fair dollop of common sense to prevail, with Meyer instead falling back on Juandré Kruger - a player he has notably trusted since he assumed his position last year - for the No 5 jersey now that brawny incumbent Flip van der Merwe has been banned for a week.
It is yet another discipline-related inconvenience in the Castle Rugby Championship which the otherwise prospering Boks could have done without, although his sidelining for a rogue elbow on the Wallabies’ Joe Tomane may also serve as an indirect extra motivator (as if they needed any more?) for South Africa.
On Monday, the Boks announced that Lions lineout ace Franco van der Merwe has been summoned to the broader squad: one suspects this is more to restock their training-ground numbers in the lead-up to the weekend and to provide additional cover in case of further lock mishaps before Saturday.
Make no mistake, there is a case for saying Van der Merwe warrants his short-term but cruelly untimely suspension, but at the same time there is a certain stink and glaring hypocrisy to citing procedures when a player like the New Zealanders’ Ma’a Nonu gets away time and again with spiteful shoulder charges at high pace on advancing opposition players both at Test and Super Rugby level.
Meyer was at pains to tell Sport24 after the 28-8 victory over Australia at Newlands on Saturday that he will not be playing up any emotional “get even” element among his charges, referring to controversial events in the Eden Park first-round clash with the All Blacks (although his thoughts might now apply also to later developments surrounding Bulls favourite Van der Merwe).
The coach rightly says his troops will need to be supremely focused and level-headed if they are to dismantle the world champions in the challenging “five log points to nil” manner required to snatch the trophy.
Van der Merwe has been playing impressively enough in his adjusted role of No 5 lock at times for his country this season, and his bulk and physicality was no doubt intended once again as a key element of the collective desire to first “subdue” the All Blacks up front, and then aim for the “penetrate” part in the necessarily daring, adventurous quest for four tries.
Meyer is renowned for getting his positional pecking order firmly sorted out and then not deviating too greatly from it - it is a powerful enough reason to suspect that much-travelled Kruger, the designated lock substitute who got 20 minutes last weekend, will crack the nod to occupy the middle-jumper vacancy.
Although a relative first-class veteran at 28, the mobile 1.97m and 112kg former Bulls player (now with Racing Metro) has been a pretty late addition to Test rugby, having amassed as many as 16 caps just in the two seasons Meyer has held the Bok reins.
Lots of those have been starts, so he is crucially very well acquainted with the various Bok pack systems and calls.
He is not always the most assertive customer at cleaning out or when the going gets gnarly, but his speed about the park and tidy ball skills do make him reasonably well suited to the Boks’ high-tempo needs for this specific fixture - the more link men they can muster in hand-to-hand attacks the better, you suspect.
The Boks may lose just a wee bit of grunt at scrum time in the absence of Van der Merwe, but at the same time they have sometimes excelled at the set-piece before with Kruger in their second-row midst, and the whole process relies heavily on collective cohesion and desire anyway.
All that said, the rookie Du Toit is a quite awesome prospect, already making enormous strides at 21 with the Sharks and seemingly fully fit again after an injury-enforced layoff of several weeks.
The 2012 IRB Junior World Championship winner - where he was mostly employed as a barnstorming blindside flank - is very much part of Meyer’s vision for the 2015 World Cup assault, and he has often enthused before about how the two-metre, 115kg blond specimen could fairly seamlessly switch between Nos 4 and 5 given his broad abilities.
Sooner rather than later - perhaps with a start or two in the UK at year’s end - the world will get to know much more about Du Toit, a man whose hands are so formidably big, according to an SA Rugby Magazine interview earlier this year, that he cannot always grip gym weights properly.
But with Kruger in the run-on XV and Du Toit perhaps getting a generous and potentially exciting debut off the bench as the Ellis Park game wears on, South Africa’s quest for the tricky Full Monty on Saturday has not been too devastatingly impaired ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing