Durban - There was a mix bag of reasons given for the three changes made to the Springbok team for Saturday’s first Test against Wales at Kings Park, and amazingly for this time of year, the word injury wasn’t even mentioned once.
To list them: one of them was rotational (Fourie du Preez for Ruan Pienaar), one was because of the sudden voluntary exit from the squad of a star player, and the other was...well, the other had a hint of sentimentality about it, reports the supersport.com website.
In addition to the scrumhalf switch, Jan Serfontein comes in for Frans Steyn in the midfield, and Gurthro Steenkamp starts ahead of Beast Mtawarira.
The change that wasn’t anticipated before Tuesday, for it is understood that Steyn was still training with the team on Monday and was in the shadow starting combination, was the one made at inside centre.
Serfontein gets a chance to play there now that Steyn is no longer part of the group following his mysterious request to have his national contract set aside and his international career put on hold.
Coach Heyneke Meyer lamented the loss of five quality centres, some of them who he rates as world class, over the past few weeks.
However, it is hard to believe that the immensely gifted Serfontein, the star of the successful South African under-20 that won the IRB Junior World Cup two years ago, is really only fifth on any pecking order.
To be fair, he is probably third among the inside centres, depending on whether or not Meyer intended playing the injured Damian de Allende in the No 12 or the No 13 had he selected him, as he intended to, for last week’s game against the World XV at Newands.
He would have been the choice of many critics as De Villiers’ direct replacement when the Bok captain had to withdraw through injury a fortnight ago.
Regardless of where he is ranked or when he would have got game time were it not for the injuries to the other players, it is not as if Serfontein comes in boasting no experience of international rugby.
And Meyer said as much at the team announcement press conference.
"Jan is a great centre who I rate highly and he has played nine games for us off the bench, some of them at inside centre and some of them at outside centre," said Meyer.
"He has played against some of the best players in the world when he has been on for us, and has been involved in setting up some good tries as well as scoring one himself.
"So he is no stranger to the Bok midfield, although this is his first start.
"The withdrawal of Frans was disruptive, and I would like to have as far as possible have kept the same team that played last week in Cape Town.
"Jan would have been used at some stage during the June incoming tours, but for this first Test I wanted to stick to a settled team.
"But the situation that has developed means that Jan comes in and maybe it will turn out to be a good thing that he gets a chance to show us what he is capable of starting at this level.
"It will be a hell of a test for him as he will be playing against Jamie Roberts, who weighs in at over 100 kilograms and is a top international player who boasts a lot of experience."
Steenkamp’s elevation to the starting team at loosehead prop was sentimental if you listened to Meyer’s reasoning.
"Gurthro is playing his 50th game and we felt it would be fitting to give him the honour of playing in the starting team to celebrate the achievement," said the Bok coach.
"Beast has played a lot of rugby, and when I had a chat to him, he had no problem with playing off the bench this week.
"Beast is a good team man and he accepted the decision.
"There isn’t much to choose between them."
But while it may have had a tinge of sentimentality to it, what should save Meyer from criticism for the move is that he is on the money when he says there isn’t much to choose between the looseheads – and many would probably argue that he should be resting the likes of Mtawarira anyway as he is one of the players who has played without a break through Super Rugby.
Du Preez’s return to the No 9 jersey after operating as back-up to Pienaar last week was largely expected, as the vice-captain’s late appearance on the field at Newlands was all about just easing him back after a long break since the end of the Japanese club season. Pienaar wasn’t great against the World XV, and Du Preez was better than him when he was on the field, so this one could be justified on the basis of form too.
The retention of Cornal Hendricks on the wing means the Cheetahs flyer gets his first Test cap as last week’s game was a friendly and not an official Test match, while the absence of Flip van der Merwe, who is attending a family wedding this weekend and has been granted special leave, offers a first match squad opportunity for young Cheetahs lock Lood de Jager, who was clearly delighted with his selection judging by the huge smile he wore during the press conference.
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Victor Matfield (captain), 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Gurthrö Steenkamp
Substitutes: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Tendai Mtawarira, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Lood de Jager, 20 Schalk Burger, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Johan Goosen, 23 Lwazi Mvovo