Johannesburg - The first priority for the Springboks as they get down to the business in Dublin on Monday of preparing for Saturday’s AVIVA Stadium clash with Ireland will be to subject Ruan Pienaar to a fitness test – and the outcome could be of significance to the chances of the South Africans completing a successful tour.
According to the supersport.com website, Pienaar injured his knee in the Castle Lager Rugby Championship test against the All Blacks in Wellington in September and has been watching from the sidelines ever since. He was involved in a race against time to get himself fit for the four match tour, which includes fixtures against Ireland, England, Italy and Wales, and his participation is pending Monday’s fitness test.
After a slow start to the southern hemisphere international season, where was criticised for slow clearance of the fringes of the scrums and rucks, Pienaar had found good form by the time he was injured. Pienaar’s style of play is the closest approximation to that of the likely first choice World Cup scrumhalf, Fourie du Preez, and when he was absent so was the assurance that the Boks could mix it with the All Blacks in the tactical kicking game.
In his absence, Francois Hougaard played well, and many Bok fans will be hoping that coach Heyneke Meyer continues with Hougaard in the No 9 on this tour. However, Hougaard doesn’t boast much of a kicking game, and the style of play they employed in the home tests against Australia and New Zealand was very much a case of cutting the suit to fit the cloth.
While the possession orientated approach that eventually wore down Australia and which surprised the All Blacks in the first half at Ellis Park brought rave reviews, the different conditions that the Boks are likely to experience in the northern hemisphere autumn will require a greater focus on the kicking aspect.
And here Pienaar’s fitness could be crucial to the Bok chances of overcoming Ireland and England in the first two weeks of the tour, arguably much the tougher proportion of their end of year assignment. Pienaar was the difference between the teams the last time the Boks played in Dublin, and while the Boks were reportedly greeted with clear skies when they arrived, the weather in that part of the world is always a lottery.
Even if it is dry, the underfoot conditions both at AVIVA and at Twickenham a week later will slow the game down from the tempo that the Boks became used to on the dry fields of home during the last part of the South African leg of the Rugby Championship. So the skills that saw Hougaard to the fore then won’t be in as high a demand, and Pienaar must stand a good chance of coming back in as the starting scrumhalf if he is declared fit.
“Up north it’s slower and the game’s a lot more aerial. There will be more kicking to defend against and in those conditions it’s just harder to move the ball around,” said Bok defence coach John McFarland before the squad’s departure.
The silver lining to Pienaar not making it will be that Hougaard’s play in northern conditions will be tested, but you would imagine that Meyer would prefer the Ulster based former Sharks player to be available as his style of play suits the likely conditions and he is also used to them. Hougaard, should he not start in the initial part of the tour, should get his opportunity in the last two games as the Boks should be using the penultimate game against Italy in Padova as a dress rehearsal for the final match against Wales in Cardiff on 29 November, when the overseas based Boks won’t be available to play.
The unavailability of the overseas players and the scheduling of the fixtures should work for the Boks, who should be better off playing England in mid-trip rather than in the final match, which is usually the case for their November tours. It means that they will at least play England at full strength and when they are fresh, though the freshness of the players should be less of an issue this time than it has been previously given that the contracted Boks haven’t played since the All Black test on 4 October.
Playing Italy and Wales in the second half of the tour means that Meyer can set that portion of the trip aside for any experimentation, and it is then that we might see some out of the box selections, possibly even Patrick Lambie starting at flyhalf with Handre Pollard lining up at No 12.
The tour is an important one as it marks the start of the build-up to a World Cup which will be played in the same conditions next year, but the emphasis will remain the same as it has from the start of the Meyer reign as coach – the Boks will be out to develop their game while at the same time maintaining a winning record and the momentum picked up at the end of the Rugby Championship.
So far this year has been much better than those experienced by other Bok coaches in the feared third year of the four year World Cup cycle, but as skipper Jean de Villiers noted during a training camp in Stellenbosch two weeks ago, the overall picture of 2013 depends on what happens over the next four weeks.
“The statistics do tell us that this year has been a lot better than those others, but the season is not finished yet and it all hinges on the end of year tour. If we don’t do well, the whole complexion of the season will change,” said De Villiers.
And as vice-captain Victor Matfield, who was the captain on the corresponding 2010 tour, reminded us at the same training camp, it won’t be an easy tour.
“We are not focusing on England at the moment, the match that concerns me and is the immediate priority is the one against Ireland. They are the European champions at the moment and they always lift themselves when they play the Springboks,” said Matfield.
19h30: Ireland v Springboks – AVIVA Stadium, Dublin
16h30: England v Springboks – Twickenham, London
16h00: Italy v Springboks – Stadio Euganeo, Padova
16h30: Wales v Springboks – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff