Cape Town – It is hardly a secret that the Springboks are pinning their hopes on proven but ageing maestro Fourie du Preez for the key scrumhalf berth at RWC 2015.
There has been understandable concern that the 33-year-old former Loftus-based favourite, now contracted to Suntory Goliath in Japan, opted not to get involved at Super Rugby level this year – focusing instead on personal conditioning which has left him dormant in match terms for several months.
So if Du Preez is, indeed, earmarked as a crucial figure at the World Cup, it seems a matter of some urgency for him to get stuck into the Bok lead-up to the event – five games including a shortened Castle Rugby Championship – as swiftly and determinedly as possible to regain necessary sharpness at the highest level of combat.
But when coach Heyneke Meyer unveiled a 49-strong group of players on Saturday, a paragraph in the official media release revealed that “(Du Preez) suffered a knee injury while training with his Japanese club earlier this week”.
It must be of at least some concern to the Bok management because instead of placing his name in the 36-man main squad for the outset of the pre-World Cup roster (they kick off against a World XV at Newlands on July 11), it is among a further group of 13 described as an “injured/conditioning squad”.
Inquiries to the Bok camp from Sport24 received a guarded response; they say they will “know more” after he has been medically examined by their relevant staff on Monday.
Considering that Du Preez has carefully shielded himself from the notorious rigours of Super Rugby once again this year – the fourth season in a row -- it would be both ironic and extremely unfortunate if he has done any serious mischief to the knee on the Japanese training turf.
He has been a long-time favourite of Meyer’s at various levels, and with plenty of justification given the game “bossing” and sense of awareness that will never desert him even if he is probably losing a wee bit of pace and reaction time in his twilight years.
Simply put, the Boks have tended to look short of a general at No 9 whenever he has been absent from their plans, and with the World Cup flyhalf likely to be a relative youngster like Handre Pollard (especially) or Pat Lambie, the street-wise and strong-passing Du Preez would be a perfect foil as halfback partner.
It is going to be a hindrance to their intentions, and obviously those of Du Preez himself, if he is ruled out of any of the Bok build-up games to the English-staged extravaganza -- scheduled to be his third World Cup and a second bid to win it after he was among the triumphant 2007 squad.
Still, they have been prepared to bring him this far and even if Du Preez were to find his Rugby Championship, for instance, curtailed to some extent, Meyer will probably bite the bullet and stick to the RWC plan for the veteran if he gets a fitness green light for involvement in it.
Remember that the Boks have a relatively “soft” pool schedule – against Japan, Samoa, Scotland and the United States – before they get down to the knockout nitty-gritty, so that effectively buys further time for any intended Bok bankers (not just Du Preez) who may have injury issues ahead of the quarter-finals.
South Africa will be particularly keen to field the classy Du Preez at RWC 2015, given that one of the three scrumhalves in their 2011 mix, Francois Hougaard, has fallen right out of favour: not cracking a party of 49 must say something quite powerful.
Perhaps Hougaard has paid a price for the ongoing uncertainty over whether he is best deployed as a scrumhalf or wing, while being part of a Bulls team that seriously imploded at the tail-end of the Super Rugby campaign would not have helped matters.
The other 2011 “survivor”, Ulster-based Ruan Pienaar (80 caps, albeit the majority still as a substitute) currently stands out as the lone experienced available hand at No 9: Meyer has promoted the completely uncapped pair of Faf de Klerk (Lions) and the Bulls’ Rudy Paige to his immediate frontline squad of 36.
The name of the Sharks’ six-cap Cobus Reinach lies alongside that of Du Preez in the “rehab crew”.
Plenty of Lions fans and various neutral onlookers, too, will welcome the call-up for De Klerk, in particular: he gave the surprise-package Lions a real cutting edge in Super Rugby this year, with his general fearlessness and sniping relish, plus stealth and prominence in linking situations.
That said, the 23-year-old from Nelspruit, like several other South African-based scrumhalves, still makes occasional errors in option-taking, tactical kicking and broad summing up of situations.
This is where Du Preez arguably still has no equals.
Monday’s medical verdict will be anxiously awaited by Meyer and his lieutenants ...
Springbok squad (in alphabetical order):
Willem Alberts (Sharks), Loose forward, 32 Test caps
Schalk Brits (Saracens, England), Hooker, 7
Schalk Burger (Stormers / Suntory, Japan), Loose forward, 75
Marcell Coetzee (Sharks), Loose forward, 26
Damian De Allende (Stormers), Centre, 3
Faf de Klerk (Lions/Pumas), Scrumhalf, 0
Bismarck du Plessis (Sharks), Hooker, 70
Jannie du Plessis (Sharks), Prop, 62
Eben Etzebeth (Stormers), Lock, 33
Elton Jantjies (Lions), Flyhalf, 2
Bryan Habana (Toulon, France), Wing, 106
Cornal Hendricks (Cheetahs), Wing, 11
Zane Kirchner (Leinster, Ireland), Wing / Fullback, 29
Steven Kitshoff (Stormers), Prop, 0
Vincent Koch (Stormers/Steval Pumas), Prop, 0
Siya Kolisi (Stormers), Loose forward, 10
Jesse Kriel (Bulls), Fullback, 0
Willie le Roux (Cheetahs), Fullback / Wing, 25
Francois Louw (Bath, England), Loose forward, 34
Frans Malherbe (Stormers), Prop, 4
Victor Matfield (Bulls), Lock, 121
Teboho “Oupa” Mohoje (Cheetahs), Loose forward, 7
Franco Mostert (Lions), Lock, 0
Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks), Prop, 64
Lwazi Mvovo (Sharks), Wing, 10
Scarra Ntubeni (Stormers), Hooker, 0
Trevor Nyakane (Bulls), Prop, 13
Rudy Paige (Bulls), Scrumhalf, 0
Ruan Pienaar (Ulster, N Ireland), Scrumhalf, 80
JP Pietersen (Sharks), Centre / Wing, 59
Handré Pollard (Bulls), Flyhalf, 9
Morné Steyn (Stade Francais, France), Flyhalf, 59
Adriaan Strauss (Bulls), Hooker, 44
Heinke van der Merwe (Stade Francais, France), Prop, 4
Marcel van der Merwe (Bulls), Prop, 4
Warren Whiteley (Lions), Loose forward, 2
Injured / Conditioning squad:
Heinrich Brussow (Cheetahs/Docomo, Japan), Loose forward, 20
Lood de Jager (Cheetahs), Lock, 9
Jean de Villiers (Stormers), Centre, 106
Fourie du Preez (Suntory, Japan), Scrumhalf, 70
Pieter-Steph du Toit (Sharks), Lock, 2
Jaque Fourie (Kobe, Japan), Centre, 72
Patrick Lambie (Sharks), Flyhalf / Fullback, 40
Lionel Mapoe (Lions), Centre, 0
Coenie Oosthuizen (Cheetahs), Prop, 21
Cobus Reinach (Sharks), Scrumhalf, 6
Jan Serfontein (Bulls), Centre, 20
Frans Steyn (Sharks), Centre, 53
Duane Vermeulen (Stormers), No 8, 29
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