Needed, fast ... Bok first team

2015-08-31 14:12

Cape Town – Just how swiftly South Africa are able to put together their intended top XV at the World Cup could have an important bearing on how far they go.

It has been an elusive task throughout the 2015 Test season thus far, primarily because of the absence of various key figures who have since been declared “good to go” for the tournament despite chronic rust and ongoing rehabilitation from injuries in many instances.

The sooner coach Heyneke Meyer can assemble his best possible personnel and get them familiar to each other again in terms of positional synergies, the better for their chances of getting to an acceptably advanced stage of RWC 2015 – it is doubtful most supporters would settle for anything less than qualification for a semi-final as “par”.

In the immediate aftermath of the revelation of the 31-strong party in Durban on Friday evening, there were upbeat sound-bites from the likes of captain Jean de Villiers and No 8 powerhouse Duane Vermeulen, suggesting they would like to be involved from game one (against Japan in Brighton on September 19).

That may well be a little optimistic in the case of De Villiers, as he apparently simultaneously revealed it will be almost a fortnight before he can take contact again following his latest, jaw-break setback ... that seems cutting it very fine for any significant involvement against the Japanese.

Indeed, game two against Samoa – they of the occasional penchant for thudding coat-hanger tackles -- at Villa Park a week later hardly sounds the most apt opportunity for his comeback, either!

For all Vermeulen’s enthusiasm after his neck surgery to get back into the demanding heat of physical combat, something he so naturally relishes, the word is that he may be kept on a cautious leash until either the Samoan clash or Scotland at Newcastle in game three.

The other big vagary is when (and some cynical people are still muttering “if”) intended scrumhalf mastermind Fourie du Preez will finally make his appearance for the cause after several months of no rugby whatsoever.

These instabilities heavily impede any quest for the Boks to hit the ground running with their core personnel among the charge from the outset of the World Cup.

The one comfort is that they will (I know, famous last words ...) see off Japan with some comfort in the opener, regardless of the composition of the Bok side and even the fact that their opponents have just scored 70 points and only leaked eight over the course of two warm-up Tests against fellow-RWC minnows Uruguay.

Still, just ahead of Friday’s announcement, SuperSport pundit and 1999 Bok World Cup coach Nick Mallett said he imagined Meyer would wish to field best possible line-ups for all of the first three Pool B fixtures.

He would want a first team – or as near as possible to one – for the Japan date simply to achieve some continuity and rhythm ahead of the middle two potential “toughies” against the Samoans and Scots respectively.

Only if the Boks have won all three, as they are still tipped to do, will the coach then give opportunities to fringe men in the pool closer against the United States, is Mallett’s forecast.

It makes extra sense given that the turnaround between the crunch Scotland match and the USA date is a mere four-day one, so the Boks would not wish to field too many leg-weary customers at London’s Olympic Stadium if they can avoid it.

But if we do belatedly get to see a largely Springbok “second team” duly subdue (hopefully) the World Rugby 16th-ranked Americans, it still leaves the worrying question ahead of it: when precisely can we expect the best Bok arsenal to do duty?

Keep in mind that re-familiarising the A-team has added urgency given that the Boks beat Argentina in Buenos Aires on August 15, their last pre-RWC appearance, with a side comprised mainly of players not believed to be in Meyer’s plans for ideal first XV.

The irony was that his “experimental” combo played pretty well in earning South Africa their overdue first Test win of the year – yet you would still not expect too many of Zane Kirchner, Ruan Pienaar (assuming Du Preez is fit), Trevor Nyakane or Adriaan Strauss to be the main men in their respective berths.

That obviously also applies to Heinrich Brussow and Marcel van der Merwe, who ran out in Buenos Aires but aren’t even in the RWC squad mix, whilst Schalk Burger may find himself relieved of his acting No 8 duty, and Pat Lambie isn’t guaranteed to pip Handre Pollard to first pick at No 10.

You may get just a little frightened when you chew over this widely-speculated, “ideal” Bok first XV in Meyer’s mind, and how many of them remain shrouded in fitness doubt: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jean de Villiers 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.

As many as eight of them, I suspect, would not be deemed medically ready to start a Springbok match tomorrow.

How many will be, by the time the World Cup gets underway, remains a matter of even deeper concern ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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