Durban - Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer should have felt immensely satisfied as he watched a Durban Super Rugby derby on Saturday that confirmed to him that several pieces of his jigsaw puzzle are now finally starting to fit into place.
According to the SuperSport website, Patrick Lambie was at fullback for the Sharks, which is where Meyer would want him to be for the Springboks if he is to play in the series against England, which kicks off at the self-same Kings Park less than two weeks from now. And Willem Alberts not only finally started a game for the Sharks, he excelled enough in that game to walk away with the man of the match award.
Whether Alberts was as good as his teammate Marcell Coetzee is a point some would probably be prepared to argue, but there was no denying that the big man was back to his blockbusting best. And with Juan Smith ruled out for the rest of the year, that will be important for Meyer, who has said that he wants a sizeable ball carrier at blindside flank.
Alberts fits that bill, and after 10 matches for the Springboks he also has the requisite international experience at a time when Meyer might be contemplating sending several newcomers to the level into action against England. One of those greenhorns is likely to be Stormers lock Eben Etzebeth, who was the best of the visiting forwards before he was forced off with an AC injury that Stormers coach Allister Coetzee described as not too serious.
Coetzee’s game should also have helped Meyer’s ease of breathing. The national coach has indicated a preference for Coetzee to be an openside flank rather than blindside, where he has played much of the season for the Sharks. He wore the Sharks No 6 jersey against the Stormers, and he cooked, with his thrilling break that set up Lwazi Mvovo’s try being the just the icing on the cake after yet another busy performance.
The young Sharks player has consistently been among the top loose-forwards in Super Rugby statistics this season and with shifts in emphasis in referee law interpretations possibly making the specialist openside flank role filled by Heinrich Brussow a bit of a liability, Coetzee is a strong contender for the Bok No 6 jersey.
But what about the other member of the Sharks loose-trio, Keegan Daniel, who some of the Sharks management felt was their best player on the day. Coach John Plumtree certainly didn’t leave any doubt about what he thought at the post-match press conference.
“I think Keegan has had a bit of a raw deal in the past and I really think he is playing his finest rugby at the moment and he has been superb for us all season. I think he is the best No 8 in the country at the moment,” said Plumtree.
And with Duane Vermeulen out injured and Bulls skipper Pierre Spies not always that convincing as a No 8, Plumtree may have a point.
Daniel is at the planning camp currently being held by Meyer in Durban, but he has been chosen in the current 42 man squad as a flank. The Sharks are convinced he should be there as a No 8, that the back of the scrum is his best position, which is something of an irony as Meyer is known to have a leaning towards Ryan Kankowski, who impressed him in a one-on-one at one of the previous planning camps.
Kankowski’s rangy play certainly adds something to the Sharks when he plays, but with Daniel in such excellent form and leading the team so well there is unlikely to be a gap for him to wear the No 8 jersey in the foreseeable future.
The match in Durban should finally have ended any speculation about the front-row. Coenie Oosthuizen may be the long term option at tighthead prop – Meyer wants to play him there rather than loosehead – but for now, particularly considering he is going to have so little time to work with the team when it comes back to Durban next week, selecting the entire Sharks front-row en-masse is the obvious option.
Fourie du Preez, who is not at the camp because as an overseas based player he is prevented from being, is not in Durban, but he is now the clear favourite to lead the team - and rightly so. Du Preez has shaken off the effects of the debilitating shoulder injury that impeded his game in the World Cup year and the less intense Japanese season would have helped him in that regard.
He has not retired from rugby and there is also no doubt that Meyer wants him to lead the team, as Peter de Villiers would have had he carried on as coach, so it would have all come down to the meeting Meyer was due to have with Du Preez sometime during the past few days. He may have something to say on that at a media conference in Durban at 11am, but for now Du Preez looks the likely captain.
A 32-man Bok squad will be announced in Pretoria after the Bulls v Stormers Super Rugby derby on Saturday, but the team to play England on June 9 will only be announced on the Wednesday.
Meyer will need time, among other things, to assess the readiness of his overseas based players. Assuming though that Frans Steyn is looking sharp, and that Spies’ experience will win the day for now, the team for the first Test could look like this:
15 Patrick Lambie, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jean de Villiers, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Fourie du Preez (captain), 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Andries Bekker, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira