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Boks: RWC jolt for JP, Willie

2015-09-16 14:20
Willie le Roux (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Two generally staple members of Springbok back threes under the tutelage of Heyneke Meyer whenever available, fullback Willie le Roux and right wing JP Pietersen, find themselves unusually on the outside looking in for the start of RWC 2015.

The 2007 tournament-winning Pietersen, holder of 60 caps, at least has the opportunity to feature at some point against minnows Japan in the Boks’ opener at Brighton on Saturday (17:45 SA time) as he is among the replacements in the match-day squad revealed by Meyer on Wednesday.

But crafty schemer Le Roux, who has dominated the No 15 berth during Meyer’s tenure thus far, cannot find any spot amongst the 23 for the weekend, which sees Jean de Villiers back as captain and inside centre – and paired with a new midfield ally to him in the form of Jesse Kriel.

While there is still the opportunity for both Le Roux and Pietersen to return to favour as the event progresses (and the same applies to now-ousted No 12 Damian de Allende) it will nevertheless have come as reasonably disconcerting news to both, you would imagine, that they have been deprived of inside lanes at the outset of this World Cup.

They will be acutely aware that if their respective replacements, Zane Kirchner and Lwazi Mvovo, produce the goods early on, they will become hard to shift as the pool phase grinds on toward the more critical knockout landscape.

All of the largely sprightly back-three players who began the last, victorious Test match against Argentina in Buenos Aires a few weeks ago – Kirchner, Mvovo and veteran Bryan Habana – keep their spots for the Japanese task, and in many respects Meyer cannot be blamed for wanting to maintain continuity in at least some areas of the park.

This was always going to be a difficult selection for the coach, given the need to start filtering back several seasoned individuals who he sees as pivotal to his Webb Ellis Cup chances yet are dangerously low on recent match exposure.

As it is, he is still holding back two of his most highly-touted and physical forwards, Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen ... presumably to unleash them instead for the Pool B “middle” fixtures against Samoa and Scotland that may require the most effort of the four to win.

In that context, there aren’t too many bombshells in the starting XV, with Pat Lambie at flyhalf another recipient of faith from his polished away showing against the Pumas: now it is Handre Pollard (potentially covering both that spot and inside centre on Saturday) having to use any opportunity off the bench to claw himself back to first-choice status.

The omission from the starting XV of Pietersen, who in recent seasons has surrendered some of his game-breaking qualities and dimmed more in the direction of “workmanlike”, surprises me a little less than the sidelining of Le Roux, even if it must also be taken into account that both men have carried fairly recent niggles.

Yes, the now Sharks-bound talisman has his nutty moments, and is not always the most assertive of defenders, but against a second-tier side like Japan -- with the obvious need for the Boks to put them away quite handsomely -- his rightly trumpeted X-factor looked as if it would be a useful asset.

Instead he kicks his heels among the completely non-active squad members at the Community Stadium.

Nor is as though the volatile weather conditions the Boks have seemingly encountered on the English south coast during the lead-up days, which would have played more fittingly into the hands of Kirchner’s conservative playing style, are necessarily going to be repeated on Saturday: the long-range forecast suggests a mild, dry and benign day with a bit of afternoon sunshine into the bargain.

So is the retention of Kirchner at fullback, into the World Cup, a heavy clue that Meyer is going to broadly favour an older-style Bok formula, tournament-long, that places a premium on forward physicality and accuracy in tactical kicking and the like?

Some might well see it that way, and they cannot be blamed if they do.

But the coach was also at pains to point out at Wednesday’s SuperSport-televised team announcement that Kirchner has “always had some stick” from the South African public (presumably referring to the dour safety and predictability he is widely renowned for).

But, Meyer added -- not without some supporting evidence, if he had wished to produce it -- the former Loftus-based stalwart has also featured often enough before in Bok matches where the try tally has been particularly healthy.

In other words, Kirchner is not exclusively a robotic “stopper” at the back.

Warming increasingly to his defence of a once-favourite of his, Meyer also spoke of how the George-born Kirchner, 31, has “really grown as a person” in his couple of years stationed abroad in the Leinster fold.

He spoke of how the player’s communication skills have boomed – and he may not have been referring solely to mid-match considerations.

This writer has some reasonably painful recollections of witnessing Bok media or public-interaction platforms during a 2010 end-of-year-tour of the UK, when squad member Kirchner came across as painfully shy and often downright non-committal when press representatives or rugby-lovers tried to engage with him. He would take on a vacuous, chronically insecure look.

Could it just be that Kirchner supposedly coming out of himself a lot more, far away from previous platteland or Highveld comfort zones, has aided his wider development as a player while resident in Ireland?

You have to wonder whether his selection at international level will ever come to be described as a “masterstroke” in fullest sense, but it shouldn’t be ruled out that we may witness at RWC 2015 the fruits from a man who simply blossomed, and became a more rounded individual, a bit late in rugby life ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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