Bok coach Heyneke Meyer (right) takes his charges through their paces at a training camp. PHOTO: Chris Ricco / BackpagePix
The World Cup kicks off in London in less than a month’s time. Herbert Pretorius assesses where the Springboks stand on the eve of rugby’s biggest competition
Although the victory in Buenos Aires last weekend came in time to ease a bit of pressure on the team and its coach, it still does not help answer a number of troubling questions, such as:
What is the best line-up?
The coach certainly had a clear picture in his mind at the beginning of this year’s international season of his ideal starting line-up, but several external factors have complicated this in the past few months.
Injuries to key players are the biggest problem. For example, he does not know whether three key players, Jean de Villiers, Duane Vermeulen and Fourie du Preez, will be fit to play. Even if they are physically ready, he will have to decide whether he is willing to include players in his squad who are not match fit.
Vermeulen’s last game was on May 30 for the Stormers against the Cheetahs at Newlands. Du Preez last played months ago in the Japanese league – which is at a much lower level than test rugby.
What to do about the captaincy?
De Villiers is his preferred candidate to lead the team in the World Cup, but the centre’s ongoing battle against injury will force Meyer to have a plan B and C. Victor Matfield seems to be the man who can play the role if De Villiers is not there, while Schalk Burger also did well when the captaincy was entrusted to him.
Veterans or newcomers?
Meyer has often pointed out the importance of experience in a World Cup, but is it right to select players on the basis of their reputations and tests played, rather than picking youngsters who are in better form? A good example of this dilemma is the Bok centre pairing.
Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel have emerged as an exciting combination, but are still inexperienced at test level. De Villiers’ leadership and composure under pressure are valuable, but in the little game time he has had since his return, he certainly did not look like a world-class player. To include him, you have to break up a partnership that is working very well.
The same applies to JP Pietersen (Lwazi Mvovo looks much sharper), Matfield (Lood de Jager has made a serious claim for the No 5 jersey) and Tendai Mtawarira (Trevor Nyakane is knocking at the door – and the outstanding prop in Super Rugby, Steven Kitshoff, hasn’t even been given a chance yet).
Who is the best fly half?
Patrick Lambie’s immaculate composure against Argentina in Buenos Aires has now given Meyer serious food for thought. Until the weekend, Handré Pollard was his first-choice fly half, but his erratic performances this year are worrying.
In a World Cup tournament, percentage rugby is often needed to win games. Pollard is the more gifted fly half, but Lambie has more experience and proved himself in European conditions. In the end, Meyer will have to ask himself which of the two is best suited to keep his head under pressure in a big knockout match.
Consistency or flair?
This follows the Pollard-Lambie debate and applies particularly to Willie le Roux, the team’s first-choice fullback.
The flamboyant player can conjure up moments of brilliance and create tries from nothing, but this must be balanced against his tendency to commit costly blunders. In addition, his defence is not beyond question.
Like last weekend, Meyer could take a more conservative approach and use Zane Kirchner – a steady, but limited fullback. Or he could take a chance with Lambie.
How sharp are the reserves?
This year, for example, Meyer has stubbornly persisted with Ruan Pienaar at scrum half and given Cobus Reinach little opportunity to develop his game. In addition, exciting players such as Faf de Klerk and Rudy Paige have never been given a chance to show what they can offer at the highest level.
The same goes for the hooker, where Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss are persistently used, without giving highly regarded players Schalk Brits and Scarra Ntubeni a run.
Brits had a little playing time last weekend, but what impact could he have had, for example, against Australia or New Zealand in the last 20 minutes? On the basis of his Super Rugby performances in the last few years, Ntubeni also deserves a chance to show what he is capable of. If Du Plessis or Strauss are injured in the World Cup, the Boks will find themselves having to use a hooker with little or no match fitness in the 23-man squad.
What about the political hot potato?
Apart from the team selection problems, there is also of course the issue of political pressure that will make Meyer’s job even more difficult – but he has more than enough black players at his disposal who are in the Springbok squad on merit.
Transformation in the Springbok context requires a willingness by the coach to give all his players a fair chance.
The furore in which Meyer found himself after the Durban debacle could have been avoided by wiser and better considered team choices.
To sum up, Meyer will be facing a few sleepless nights in coming weeks. The weight of evidence suggests the Boks will face an uphill battle in the tournament.
But as often proved in the past, a wounded Bok is a more dangerous creature than a Bok who is having his praises sung.