Cape Town – Springbok veterans Jean de Villiers, the current
captain, and Jannie du Plessis are clearly being primed for two last heroic
efforts, despite creaking bodies, on the end-of-year tour.
Both have already seen herculean service in a season of
unique, extraordinary first-class length, and there is no let-up for either in
starting terms as South Africa set their sights on avenging their 2010 defeat
to Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday (16:30 kick-off).
Following the announcement on Wednesday of the team to play
the Scots – featuring the welcome inclusions of loosehead prop Gurthro
Steenkamp and outside centre Juan de Jongh – it became clear that De Villiers
and Du Plessis, the most prolific cap-holders in the backline and pack
respectively for Edinburgh, are earmarked to close off the campaign having begun
every Bok Test in 2012.
Certainly you would think that if these stalwarts, both of
whom have been labouring to varying degrees with niggles and presumably also fatigue,
have been entrusted with berths in the XV to play both Ireland and Scotland,
they will also be expected to be at their posts for the customary tour climax
against England next weekend.
If they do indeed “go the distance” they may well join
Francois Hougaard as the only three players to have run out at the start of
every match in the Heyneke Meyer tenure as coach thus far – although the
versatile Hougaard has served both the scrumhalf and left wing positions and
may well need a more convincing No 11 showing against the Scots if he is to
retain a berth at Twickenham.
Earlier in the week, Meyer himself confessed he was
“thinking of giving Jean a rest (at Murrayfield)” on the grounds of his
continued battle to fully shrug off a hamstring complaint that has been
bothersome for several weeks.
But considering the pressure on the coach to maintain a
winning habit after the split-personality victory over Ireland, he instead
opted to keep changes to a relative minimum and clearly wanted his regular skipper
at the helm once more.
The decision to keep De Villiers in the mix would also have
been influenced by the inclusion of De Jongh in place of Jaco Taute at No 13;
it means the useful fielding of an all-Stormers midfield alliance and may only
enhance the prospect of the potentially game-busting De Jongh shining.
Hopefully, the Boks will stamp their authority on the Scots
in the first half, something they lamentably failed to do in Dublin, which
could mean the luxury of hauling off De Villiers before the second half or
early in it.
You can hardly blame Meyer -- yet to earn really significant
public backing -- for seeking a strong sense of continuity after the ground-out
triumph over a plucky but limited Irish outfit.
But it is also hard
to imagine a team like the All Blacks, who have a better say over the game-time
levels of their key assets anyway, flogging a player into the ground in the
manner De Villiers has throughout the year – especially when he is clearly not
wholly hunky-dory from a fitness point of view.
To compound matters, the blond No 12 also reportedly sat out
Tuesday’s training because of a cold.
It is probably not unjustified to speculate that De Villiers
and Du Plessis may be walking a bit of a tightrope in terms of trying to stay
on the park for both Murrayfield and Twickenham: might the former game only damage
their prospects of involvement in the possibly more crucial latter?
Just how close the Sharks tighthead prop is to more serious
breakdown is reflected in the revelation that he hurt an ankle as early as the
third minute against Ireland, yet soldiered on to the 55th before he
finally became the first replacement of the day as Pat Cilliers mercifully took
over his role.
Du Plessis has been a rock-like figure for the Springboks
this year, and no doubt Meyer is fully aware of his contribution in a critical,
anchoring position to the team’s overall good state of health in scrummaging
The Scots do take pride in their own set-piece, so the Bok
coach clearly believes that even a patched-up and increasingly tiring Du
Plessis will be worth his weight in gold on Saturday.
The afore-mentioned trio of ever-presents for South Africa
this season, plus Zane Kirchner (a contentious retention at fullback) will be
the only starting survivors of the team which succumbed in torrential rain and
biting cold 21-17 to the Scots two years ago.
Perhaps the most
significant area of “all change” is in the back five of the pack: the
starters at lock in the 2010 mudbath were Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha,
and the loose trio then was made up of Deon Stegmann, Juan Smith and Ryan
Long-range weather reports lean toward dry conditions this
time, and with more than 50,000 tickets reportedly sold, the crowd will also be
some 20,000 bigger than for the prior meeting when telly and fireside made
infinitely greater sense to many of the local populace ...
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