Cape Town – If South Africa still had a say in the destiny of the 2014 Castle Rugby Championship title going into the final round on Saturday, then trying to ready crackerjack No 8 Duane Vermeulen for the Ellis Park encounter with New Zealand would be a priority this week.
But the title is safely in the grasp of the All Blacks following their (expected, frankly) bonus-point triumph over Argentina in La Plata – their third seizure of the spoils in as many years of the now four-nation event.
Iron man Vermeulen, who has been in thunderous form during the tournament, left the Newlands pitch in the 62nd minute of the 28-10 win against the Wallabies at Newlands with a rib injury.
Coach Heyneke Meyer revealed afterwards that “it is a concern for us” (ahead of the Johannesburg clash) so there seems every chance a replacement will be required in the berth.
While no meeting between the Boks and All Blacks is ever unimportant, the bottom line, like it or not, is that we are talking dead rubber on Saturday.
Yes, the Boks may well “want” victory more, given their five-game streak of losses to these world-leading foes under Heyneke Meyer’s otherwise impressive tutelage thus far, but there will still be that vital little bit less crackle to the contest now: certainly the New Zealanders will not be broken men if the result goes against them, given the slightly altered dynamic mentally with the trophy already in their possession.
Frankly, I believe it is more important that the Boks throw everything at winning next year’s scheduled once-off game against the All Blacks in a reduced competition – that date will be significantly closer to the World Cup and such an outcome then would have deeper psychological meaning.
That is not to say that Jean de Villiers’s outfit will not have a full-blooded crack at breaking their NZ drought more immediately, in the Big Smoke.
But if there is any risk at all of aggravating the injury to Vermeulen – the Boks have remaining 2014 business on a four-Test European tour, even if certain players may be strategically rested from it – then it would be wiser to sit him right out of Saturday’s match.
There would probably have been far greater desire to work a medical mini-miracle on him in the coming days if the Championship itself was still going to be up for grabs.
As it is, the Boks are well nigh guaranteed of the runners-up spot, as they have moved five points clear of the third-placed Wallabies and with a vastly superior “for and against” status – they are plus 22 to Australia’s minus 41, meaning a sizeable gap in that department between them of 63 points.
For the Aussies to nip into second, they will have to thrash Argentina away with a full house, while hoping the Boks also take a significant, no-log-points pounding from Richie McCaw and company.
Not having Vermeulen to counter the wiles of Kieran Read at No 8 would obviously be a wrench.
But there is now a ready-made, attractive “Plan B” given Schalk Burger’s wonderfully fired-up, game-turning showing off the bench at Newlands: he got 25 minutes in total and all but seven of them were in the No 8 berth.
He got fulsomely involved on both attack and defence, and his cheeky little “back flick” through his legs helped in no small measure to tee up the final Bok try against a Wallaby side shell-shocked by the home side’s blitz in the last 10 minutes.
It was confirmation, as if it were even needed, that the now Japan-based Burger (who will still play for the Stormers in 2015) has increasingly added a dollop of subtlety to his famed, physically-committedFull repertoire.
So if Vermeulen is a deemed no-go, he shapes as a thoroughly logical replacement to go head-to-head with Read: his gnarly 72-cap international experience is just one extra reason for that.
That would allow Marcell Coetzee to continue his impressive industry at No 6 (even if Francois Louw’s breakdown skills were missed to some extent against Australia) and for Oupa Mohoje to build on his credible maiden start by staying at blindside flank for an even more searching examination of his top-tier Test suitability.
Meyer had already re-emphasised in a June interview with this writer that he fancied the adaptable Burger as his back-up No 8, so the time may have come to put that into practice for a possible “full 80”.
As for Burger himself, he had enthused to Sport24 at a training camp at Hawston back in the late Cape summer, as the Stormers prepared for Super Rugby earlier this year, over his loose forward “libero” possibilities for the franchise.
“I’m not hell-bent on a particular shirt,” he said then. “These days I’m just grateful to be playing rugby.
“Where I am employed isn’t going to make a massive difference to the way I play anyway.”
In some ways Burger would be going full Bok circle in the position if he does get to wear No 8 on Saturday, as he launched his illustrious Test career in that very capacity: as a 20-year-old substitute for Joe van Niekerk against minnows Georgia at Sydney in the 2003 World Cup.
He has previously started once in the position – when Jake White was also beginning to take an interest in his credentials there, and he gave him a Montpellier start against the USA at the momentous 2007 World Cup in France.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing