Johannesburg - Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has spent much of the three and a half years since he came into his position scratching his head over the No 5 lock position, and he admits that he is still doing so as the Rugby World Cup approaches.
According to supersport.com, it was because of his concern about the lack of depth in the position that Meyer persuaded Victor Matfield to give up the television studio and coaching box to return to top rugby. Initially the plan was for Matfield to guide young Pieter-Steph du Toit and help him settle at international level, but the two long term injuries that have kept the now former Sharks lock sidelined for most of 2014 and 2015 have forced a change of plan.
Fortunately for Meyer, Matfield’s comeback has been more successful than expected, and instead of playing a bit part in the 2014 international season, he was a constant presence in the Bok second row. The problem of course is that while the 38-year-old is fit for his age and continues to lead his team-mates in fitness training, an old body could be susceptible to injury if driven too hard.
For Meyer, the doubt isn’t about whether Matfield is good enough, but about what happens if he breaks down between now and the second half of October when the World Cup knock-out fixtures arrive.
“Victor has to come through another 11 games, that’s how many there are until the World Cup final, and that is my one remaining concern (about the way the squad is shaping),” said Meyer after the 46-10 win over a World XV in the seasonal pipe-opener at Newlands.
“That is the only big question mark I have around the team. We keep working with other guys to jump at 5 but that’s the only box I’m worried about ticking. People don’t realise what a big influence Victor has. At the World Cup, taking one stolen lineout or one kick-off can be the difference between winning or losing.
“We really hope that Pieter-Steph will get back to his best once he comes back from his knee injuries, but he’s only played a couple of tests. Lood de Jager played a bit last year and is a good prospect (who can jump at the front and the middle) but he also hasn’t played a lot, and Eben Etzebeth isn’t really a No 5.”
On the 2013 November tour, before Matfield’s return from retirement, Flip van der Merwe was used successfully as a stop-gap No 5, but although he told a press conference last week that he was available for the Boks and there had been miscommunication on that score, the Bok management insist that the last time they met with Van der Merwe the door was closed.
“When I read your stories quoting Flip that he was available for the Boks I was very surprised because the last time we met with him he said he definitely wasn’t available,” said Bok team manager Ian Schwartz.
Schwartz said he intended having a chat with Van der Merwe at the post-match function on Saturday night and said he would report back to the media if anything changed. He did not come back before the team flew to Brisbane so it can be assumed that at this point Van der Merwe is still unavailable.
Opa Mohoje was used as lock back-up against the World XV but against the Wallabies on Saturday it could well be time to see De Jager, who is now back from his long injury lay-off that prevented him from playing most of the Super Rugby season, get a chance to show what he can do.
De Jager, together with Frans Malhere, Schalk Brits, Heinke van der Merwe, Jan Serfontein, Lionel Mapoe, Lwazi Mvovo, Morne Steyn and Rudy Paige, was part of the group that joined the Newlands match day 23 to make a squad of 31 for the trip to Brisbane.