Despite a number of conundrums posed by a host of injuries, the depth of established talent available for the upcoming SA Quadrangular Tournament 2013 means that Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is not going to be panicked into fielding Johnnies-come-lately who are not part of his vision for the next World Cup. By KEN BORLAND.
Fullback and flyhalf are the positions the public is talking about the most, but Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer will be equally concerned about lock, scrumhalf, centre and wing when he announces his squad on Saturday for the quadrangular series with Italy, Scotland and Samoa next month.
Flyhalf is actually one of the positions Meyer can rest easy over, with Morné Steyn making himself a certainty in the number 10 jersey with his great run for the in-form Bulls team.
South Africa are fortunate to have someone as talented as Pat Lambie as back-up, but a host of injuries have robbed Meyer of some key backline players. JP Pietersen, Jaco Taute and Frans Steyn are definitely out for at least the next month, while Juan de Jongh and Zane Kirchner have not played SuperRugby for some time.
That leaves some conundrums when it comes to the midfield combination and who will play fullback.
When Meyer first took over as Springbok coach, he chose Jean de Villiers as an outside centre and, given his polished display in the number 13 jersey in the Stormers’ return to winning ways last weekend, the national captain is likely to play there in the quadrangular series.
The Springbok management have given a big hint that 20-year-old Jan Serfontein is being lined up to make his Test debut inside the skipper as he has been withdrawn from the SA U20 team leaving today for the Junior World Championship in France. Robert Ebersohn has done much to make the Cheetahs serious SuperRugby contenders this year and is also an option but, despite his propensity to tackle way above his weight, he has still missed 31 tackles this season, the joint worst with Blues flyhalf Chris Noakes, according to rugbystats.com.au.
The other option is for De Villiers to play in the number 12 jersey he wore in the second half of 2012 and for JJ Engelbrecht to play 13. The Bulls youngster is almost certain to be in the squad, however, as he can also cover wing.
The back three is also a big problem for Meyer given the injuries to Pietersen, Taute, Frans Steyn and Kirchner. Bryan Habana, whose work rate and pace continue to impress, is the only certainty, while the coach might decide to move Francois Hougaard back to wing, given that the Bulls man has only recently returned from injury and has looked messy and off the pace at scrumhalf.
The other candidates for wing are Bjorn Basson, who could be favoured because of his tremendous ability in the air, Raymond Rhule, Lwazi Mvovo, Gio Aplon and Willie le Roux.
The latter two are also in the mix to be fullback. Meyer would be foolish to risk playing his regular number 15, Kirchner, given that he has not played any rugby in 10 weeks since having a finger operation.
But he could still pick an experienced international there by moving Lambie from flyhalf to fullback. Hopefully Meyer will also have the courage to consider playing Cheetahs magician Willie le Roux there, even if it is off the bench.
The Ulster-based Ruan Pienaar is likely to be the starting scrumhalf, with the pace on attack provided by Jano Vermaak a useful complementary attribute on the bench.
The second row is also going to be an interesting dilemma for Meyer. The great Bakkies Botha will be available, but the coach has already hinted that Pienaar and flank Francois Louw will be the only overseas-based players he will be calling on for the quadrangular.
The inconsistent Andries Bekker is not willing to play for the Springboks once he leaves for Japan – and is injured anyway – but Juandré Kruger will be available and is the obvious choice in the number five jersey, providing he is over the niggling injury that kept him from the field in the Springboks’ training camp this week.
Eben Etzebeth showed in his outstanding display for the Stormers last weekend that he will be able to fulfil the lineout general’s role as well, but if Bakkies is not going to be called up, the team might be stronger with Etzebeth at four.
Franco van der Merwe, so reliable for the Sharks this year, will then be the back-up number five.
The loose forward selection will inevitably be coloured by Meyer’s decision to once again ignore Heinrich Brüssow.
The Cheetahs openside flank has managed to con many critics that he is still as potent a fetcher as he was in 2009, but all the stats providers involved in SuperRugby show otherwise. He isn’t in the top 20 for pilfers on any of the stats sites, but where he does feature is in the top 10 for tackles made.
Meyer is right to be wary of unleashing Brüssow with northern hemisphere referees officiating and the rules of his trade much stricter these days, but contesting rucks is not the honey badger’s only skill. Brüssow is exceptionally strong for his size, has a great work rate and good ball skills and is hopefully not entirely out of Meyer’s plans, if even as an impact player.
It seems inevitable that the starting loose trio on June 8 against Italy in Durban will be Pierre Spies, Willem Alberts and Louw, with the bench spots contested between Marcell Coetzee, Arno Botha and new star Lappies Labuschagne.
Jannie du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss and Coenie Oosthuizen are bound to be the starting front row and Wiehahn Herbst is in line for his Test debut as reserve tighthead, with Chiliboy Ralepelle and Tendai Mtawarira the other reserves now that teams are compelled to have two props on the bench.
Bismarck du Plessis is in a similar position to Kirchner and should not be risked as he has not played a SuperRugby match the entire season. A run of three games for the Sharks after the June international window and Du Plessis should be ready to explode into Rugby Championship action having recovered properly from a serious knee injury.
Ralepelle will certainly not let the side down in the meantime, having shown accuracy at the lineout, great work rate and presence at the breakdowns for the Bulls this season.
What Meyer is not going to be conned into doing is playing flavours-of-the-month that may not be contenders for the next World Cup that is just 840 days away, no matter how vigorously their brilliance is debated in your local bar.
No more than a pair of new caps in Serfontein and Le Roux are worth betting on, but it should make fans happy that the Springbok coach can afford not to choose some of the other great talent laying around. DM
Probable squad – Pat Lambie, Willie le Roux, Bryan Habana, Lwazi Mvovo, Jean de Villiers, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Robert Ebersohn, Francois Hougaard, Bjorn Basson, Morné Steyn, Ruan Pienaar, Jano Vermaak, Pierre Spies, Arno Botha, Willem Alberts, Lappies Labuschagne, Francois Louw, Marcell Coetzee, Juandré Kruger, Franco van der Merwe, Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Flip van der Merwe, Jannie du Plessis, Wiehahn Herbst, Adriaan Strauss, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Coenie Oosthuizen, Tendai Mtawarira.
Photo: Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer and Springbok captain Jean de Villiers are taken on a guided tour by Antoinette Sithole, sister of Hector Pieterson at Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto, Thursday, 14 June 2012. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA