Cape Town - Two matches against Argentina are all that remain before Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer chooses a 31-man squad to do battle at this year’s Rugby World Cup.
While much of the squad is settled, there are still numerous players with a lot to prove over the next 160 minutes, starting with next weekend’s Rugby Championship clash against the Pumas in Durban.
Meyer is expected to rotate here, giving starts to some of those who have spent more time on the bench than on the field in the Championship so far.
So, with 51 days to go until rugby’s greatest showpiece kicks off in London, let’s take a moment to assess exactly where this Springbok squad is at in terms of who looks set to play where.
Willie le Roux remains the overwhelming favourite to be the Boks’ last line at the RWC and he has put in solid displays in all three of their outings this season. Pat Lambie has deputised at 15, but Meyer has already said that he views flyhalf as the 24-year-old’s best position. Frans Steyn could also feature here, if he recovers from his pectoral tear in time to feature against Argentina in Buenos Aires on August 15 while Jesse Kriel is also a natural fullback.
JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana? It appears so. Cornal Hendricks was less than inspiring when given a chance against the All Blacks last weekend. Lwazi Mvovo has also been in the mix, but he hasn’t been given a real opportunity yet. Perhaps that will come over the next two Tests.
This is the million dollar question, isn’t it? Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel have been scintillating at 12 and 13 respectively, but Jean de Villiers is continuing his journey towards full match fitness. It has the potential to leave Meyer with a tough decision - one that is bound to ruffle feathers either way. De Villiers is expected to play against Argentina, and he might very well be fighting for his life when he does. Frans Steyn would also provide additional cover in midfield, while Jan Serfontein is also making a late push to recover from injury and get himself into the mix.
Handre Pollard came under fire after a poor kicking display against the World XV, but he has recovered nicely. He was rock solid against the All Blacks and has surely secured the No 10 jersey for the World Cup. Lambie looks set to provide the bench cover, though what Meyer’s plans are for Morne Steyn remain unclear.
There are a few unanswered questions here. Fourie du Preez is in line for a return next weekend against the Pumas, but in his absence Ruan Pienaar has impressed. There are few players who divide public opinion like Pienaar does, and whether or not he has done enough to realistically challenge Du Preez for a World Cup starting berth remains to be seen. Then there is also Cobus Reinach, who will be hoping for some time on the pitch over the next two Tests to prove his worth.
Take your pick. This is an area that is set to keep Meyer’s mind occupied. With Willem Alberts returning from injury and Duane Vermeulen reportedly on track to recover for the World Cup, there are a lot of decisions to be made. Schalk Burger has filled the void at No 8 in Vermeulen’s absence, while Marcel Coetzee took his chance against the World XV and Wallabies. Then there is also the rejuvenated Heinrich Brussow as well as Francois Louw. Ball carriers, fetchers, leaders... Meyer has them all at his disposal, but finding the best loose forward combination may be one of his toughest challenges.
The return to fitness of Pieter-Steph du Toit provides Meyer with some much-needed depth at lock. Eben Etzebeth is a certainty, as is Victor Matfield. Lood de Jager has forced his way into the equation with a couple of big performances against the Wallabies and All Blacks and if Du Toit ticks all the boxes then the lock quartet could very well be confirmed. That would leave Flip van der Merwe out in the cold, though.
Jannie du Plessis and Beast Matawarira have found form at the right time just as the jury was out to get them. They might be rested against the Pumas, but their experience seems to have bought them a spot in Meyer’s World Cup side. That being said, the likes of Vincent Koch, Frans Malherbe, Heinke van der Merwe, Trevor Nyakane, Steven Kitshoff and Coenie Oosthuizen (if he recovers from a neck injury) will all want to book their ticket to London too.
Adriaan Strauss is rated incredibly highly, but Bismarck du Plessis is playing too well to be overlooked. The Sharks hooker has been devastating on the ground and the physicality he brings to the pack makes him indispensable. Still, the Boks will be blessed to have a player of Strauss’s capability on the bench.