Boks seek swift Pienaar service
Ruan Pienaar (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – Particularly given the weakened nature of Scotland’s squad in South Africa, the Springboks’ showing against them at Nelspruit on Saturday (17:15 kick-off) may well be measured in terms of tries scored by the host nation.
That might sound a slightly arrogant template to install, but it cannot be denied that the Boks are overwhelming favourites in Test rugby’s baptism at Mbombela Stadium – a situation only enhanced by their comfortable 44-10 disposal of Italy last weekend while the Scots were well beaten by Samoa in the early game of the Durban double-header.
Certainly there will be a powerful public clamour, and coach Heyneke Meyer
will be all too aware of it, for South Africa to continue the more expressive and impulsive trend they showed last weekend, pleasing all those who felt they were too shackled by structure and error-prohibition last season.GALLERY: Match-ups - Boks v Scotland
So it was not ideal when scrumhalf debutant Jano Vermaak
, who had mostly got the backline away at decent speed with his core passing responsibility at Kings Park, tore a hamstring during the second half and was quickly ruled out for several weeks.
Vermaak would almost certainly have been retained against Scotland: instead a door has opened again for the seasoned, world-wise Ruan Pienaar
as Meyer restricted changes to the XV to only two, and both of them enforced.
It is a reasonably logical selection, especially as the Boks are a little short on fit No 9s at present, and Pienaar’s 64-cap presence – only Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana
will boast more at the outset on Saturday – hardly amounts to any notable weakening on paper.
Perhaps this is a better opportunity for him, too, than either he or other people realise, as it seems an ideal chance to put paid to a perception (for all his undoubted, broad and versatile footballing gifts) that his service can lean slightly toward the pedestrian at times.
Pienaar, 29, is probably held in higher esteem at his now relatively long-time club base, Ulster, than he is back in the land of his birth, where it is often felt he has not quite delivered as consistently and compellingly as he could for either the Boks or his last Super Rugby and Currie Cup franchise, the Sharks.
It may be at least partly due to the different type of game played in the northern hemisphere -- where field position means so much on the slower pitches and in often inclement weather -- and a scrumhalf with a decent boot is allowed greater licence for “bossing” a game in that fashion rather than simply spinning the ball out routinely.
Pienaar may not have to play anything like that sort of multi-layered strategic role on Saturday, especially if the Boks can cross the whitewash a couple of times early on and threaten to really turn the screws through upbeat, running rugby.
So his brief may be relatively simple: just get the line away with suitable stealth.
Pienaar also has a strong swerve and sidestep, so any opportunities to exploit gaps with ball in hand could also be welcomed.
He will, additionally, be mindful that lurking on the bench will be the international rookie from the Cheetahs, Piet van Zyl, a slippery if slightly erratic fellow from the Super Rugby environment who could inject X-factor at scrumhalf if Pienaar happens to be looking laboured.
There will be few complaints from the stands or living rooms if Van Zyl does get exposure, given that some public eyebrows have already been raised about the Boks opting for someone whose strengths and shortcomings they know so well at No 9, rather than experimenting with a younger customer from the start against modest foes.
At the time of writing, the Scotland team had not yet been revealed, but if Greig Laidlaw is retained at scrumhalf, both those berths for the clash will be occupied by men boasting – or should that read “weighed down by the knowledge of?” -- close relatives of undoubted international rugby legend.
The 19-cap Laidlaw is a nephew of former Scotland and British and Irish Lions No 9 Roy, whilst Pienaar’s father Gysie, arguably, is more convincingly embedded in the annals of Bok history than his more prodigiously-capped son, despite only 13 appearances in green and gold.
Few older Springbok fans will forget Gysie Pienaar’s twinkle-toed, series-tilting exploits from fullback against the 1980 Lions.
Ruan has never quite lit up a season or series to that extent, if memory serves me correctly. Maybe it is not too late to change all that.
He does have the skills set to make it happen; how strongly burns the desire?*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing