Heyneke Meyer (Gallo)
Cape Town – The Springboks face one of their most fragile but critical weeks at a World Cup yet as they brace themselves for the necessary comeback task against Samoa in Birmingham next Saturday (17:45 SA time).
Defeat against the no-nonsense Pacific Islanders seems quite unthinkable ... after Saturday’s jaw-dropper against Japan, we’ve all had quite enough of the unthinkable already, thank you very much.
First things first: the Boks should still qualify for the quarter-finals. Repeat: should still qualify!
From the rubble of that chaotic, embarrassing 34-32 reverse to the Japanese minnows in a sunny Brighton – Bok flank legend of yesteryear Rob Louw wasn’t the only one to brand it SA’s “Pearl Harbor” – the pool favourites did at least pluck two bonus points, so it almost amounted to a “draw” for them if you dare to salvage an upbeat approach at this challenging time.
It could mean that the Boks can sneak into the knockout phase even with two wins from their remaining assignments against Samoa, Scotland and the United States ... and they may yet, perversely, even find themselves getting a slightly easier roster than expected for the last eight if they end second in Pool B.
But is it overly arrogant or blinkered to believe South Africa ought to still win all three (they could do with that tonic if self-belief is to re-grow to a pronounced enough extent) and be assured of safe passage and likely top spot anyway?
Somehow, and admittedly through a wince, that’s where my own thoughts still lie ... even if both the Samoans and Scots, especially, will feel now they have a particularly credible chance of upsetting the supposed superpower, a la Japan.
That said, a formidable amount of soul-searching and remedial action is required from the Boks if they are to defy the fast-mounting odds against them winning a third World Cup from here.
What was really so galling was the way they were outwitted, out-skilled and at times occasionally even outmuscled by the not exactly towering Japanese, who played the collective game of their lives and won the Brighton hearts of plenty of gutted but still magnanimous Bok enthusiasts, by all accounts.
At the root of South Africa’s mounting problems, I fear, is besieged coach Heyneke Meyer’s deep-rooted but now fiercely-scrutinised faith in an array of Springboks who he regards as pivotal figures but who had experienced astonishingly little top-tier rugby for many weeks or even months in some cases.
It just looked all too apparent, on Saturday, that many of the troops were dusting off cobwebs, and the longer the nail-biter went on, the more the minnows took heart from that observation – they realised plenty of their foes were more or less punched-out and had little left to give.
The Boks having so many weeks of dormancy since their last Test against Argentina away in mid-August is also under a rightful microscope.
Hit the ground running? They looked more like a gaunt group of released hostages who had been starved for a considerable period and were short on key vitamins.
An appalling result like this one always gives rise to a dilemma for a coach: make too many changes and it smacks of pure alarmism, make too few and you run the risk of being accused of rank inertia and lack of assertiveness.
But at least some changes to the match-day mix for Samoa seem necessary and a virtual fait accompli, especially given that when the Boks suffered their last humbling (though not quite to the same degree) against the Pumas in Durban, a significantly reshuffled side did the business quite well a week later in Buenos Aires.
In short, the run-on XV needs to look sharper and less ring-rusty than the one engaged against Japan, for fear of lightning somehow striking twice on the green-and-gold cause.
That must mean that someone like the promising, relatively youthful Damian de Allende comes roaring back into consideration for a midfield spot after doing little to warrant demotion on Saturday in the first place.
He should also resume his budding alliance with Jesse Kriel ... and yes, that could mean the tough-love decision by Meyer to pull his captain Jean de Villiers back to a place among the substitutes and entrust Victor Matfield with the leadership again, at least for the moment.
Long-serving De Villiers, alas, is struggling too acutely to get going; to inject the necessary pace and vitality into his game after his variety of injury-related setbacks and rehab challenges.
There is no reason to believe, I feel, that this engaging personality has lost any of his widespread respect in the dressing room; he is still around, and able to inspire (and now re-motivate) his men mentally.
But it is in the national interest right now for a more explosive athlete – De Allende -- to get back into the centre mix in a hurry.
Amidst some fears that the Boks were already retreating anyway into a more predictable, bland approach, recalling the mercurial Willie le Roux to fullback also seems the correct medicine.
Zane Kirchner did largely what you expect of him against Japan: be “efficient”. Is that really enough?
Although it would contain elements of injustice to Pat Lambie, perhaps asking Handre Pollard to start at flyhalf is the horses-for-courses approach to the Samoan challenge: his greater physicality in the channel could come in very useful against them.
A minor shaft of light at scrumhalf on Saturday was the reasonably sprightly infusion at long last of Fourie du Preez for some 25 minutes off the bench – he can probably be deemed ready to start ahead of the disappointing, muted Ruan Pienaar.
Tweaks are also necessary in the pack, where my guess would be that influential figure Duane Vermeulen is still too rusty (and can SA afford another like that?) for a start at No 8 after a long absence: he might be ready to do a “Du Preez” against Samoa and feel his way back off the bench.
With the perpetually injury-prone Willem Alberts a late non-starter against Japan due to a calf problem, Pieter-Steph du Toit had a so-so afternoon as hasty stand-in at blindside flank.
My suggestion would be a start on the open side for under-rated Siya Kolisi, who looked the business again as a second-half infusion in Brighton, with Francois Louw – perhaps temporarily – doing what he did against the All Blacks in Johannesburg and occupy the blindside responsibility against the Samoans.
The Bok front row are back skating on a bit of thin ice, regrettably, and Tendai Mtawarira may be made to pay for his strange lethargy against Japan to enable Trevor Nyakane – decent in Buenos Aires – to wear No 1 again.
Bismarck du Plessis was heavily penalised at or near the breakdown against Japan by Jerome Garces, but French referees really do seem to have it in for him at times, and the better news is that England’s Wayne Barnes has the whistle in Birmingham.
Yes, the combative Du Plessis being “pinged” was costly, but some of the decisions were questionable and in some instances he basically paid a price simply for being so industrious and desperate to effect turnovers at the ever-subjective breakdown – plenty of team-mates skirted mistakes only because they were too lifeless.
The sort of starting XV I would like to see SA field for “Operation Redemption”, admittedly without full knowledge yet of Bok camp medical considerations post-Japan:
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Bryan Habana, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Schalk Burger, 7 Francois Louw, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Victor Matfield (captain), 4 Eben Etzebeth/Lood de Jager, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Trevor Nyakane
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