Heyneke Meyer (Gallo Images)
Johannesburg - Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer should be hoping that on Wednesday night’s final Rugby World Cup Pool clash against the USA at Olympic Park gets remembered for a perfect final dress rehearsal warm-up for the quarterfinals rather than for the setback of an unnecessary injury to a key player.
According to the supersport.com website, it is true that a player can be injured at any time, but when players have already played three tough games in the space of two weeks, asking them to back up again four days later against a minnow rugby nation that you should deal with easily just seems a risk not worth taking. If it was a Super Rugby franchise doing that with Bok players, Meyer would have a fit.
For sure, there are players who need game time, and combinations that require work. Those players should be playing against the USA. But if Meyer is being serious when he speaks about the USA as a tough obstacle and talks as if his team still might not make the play-offs, then it just makes it appear South African rugby has slipped to a desperate level.
Does the country have enough depth to field an under-strength team to beat a USA team that has made 12 changes because they are targeting their final game against Japan as they one they can win? If it doesn’t, then you’d have to imagine that South African rugby has slipped to the level of Romania or another tier two nation.
The Boks should deal with the Americans easily, regardless of what team they put on the field. A big win though will have to be an imperative on Wednesday, without there being any injury setbacks that could debilitate their quarterfinal challenge, for the selection of a full strength team to be worthwhile.
If there is an injury, Meyer could end up being asked the same questions that Wales coach Warren Gatland was asked after he lost two key players, including ace goal-kicker Leigh Halfpenny, in a warm-up match many critics felt they shouldn’t have been playing in.
But we also need to be realistic about why the Boks are taking the full strength route. There is some merit in the argument that they need to fine tune, and that with players having come back from injury, they are a team that hasn’t played that much together and could do with another work-out.
That is only part of it though. The other reason for Meyer abandoning his initial plan of giving the fringe players a much needed run in this match, as his World Cup winning predecessors Kitch Christie and Jake White did in their successful campaigns, can be summed up by one word – Japan. Or Argentina if you like.
Those were two teams that the South Africans have underestimated in the past two months, and have come horribly unstuck because of it. If Meyer is scared that complacency might sneak into the camp after two good wins against Samoa and Scotland, perhaps he shouldn’t be blamed. He has been burned before. And it wasn’t nice for him.
There has been much talk this week of the pressure still being on the Boks. That should be seen for what it is – the team hyping up a nothing game because they have learned from past mistakes. Maybe they’re overdoing it, but they do have 10 days after this match to prepare for the real deal, which arrives on Saturday week in the form of a Twickenham quarterfinal.
If there are people out there who are reading this and thinking that I’m jumping the gun, that there might not be a quarterfinal, then you are more paranoid than Meyer. Brighton was an aberration. South Africa is not Romania.
The hope should be that the Boks find their clinical touch on Wednesday. That they don’t leave points on the table, and that they build individual and collective confidence by rounding off their moves. If they do that, it will be the perfect dress rehearsal. Provided they also remain injury free. If they don't, this day might be remembered with regret regardless of the result.
South Africa: Willie le Roux, Bryan Habana, Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Lwazi Mvovo, Handre Pollard, Fourie du Preez (captain), Duane Vermeulen, Schalk Burger, Francois Louw, Lodewyk de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Schalk Brits, Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Willem Alberts, Rudy Paige, Morne Steyn, Jan Serfontein.
USA: Blaine Sculley, Brett Thompson, Folau Niua, Andrew Suniula, Niku Kruger, Samu Manoa (captain), John Quill, Danny Barrett, Matthew Trouville, Louis Stanfill, Chris Baumann, Phil Thiel, Oli Kilifi. Replacements: Joe Taufetee, Zach Fenoglio, Mate Moeakiola, Titi Lamositele, Cam Dolan, Al McFarland, Mike Petri, Chris Wyles.