Selecting players is a juggling act, as talent, experience and consistent form have to be measured against the probability of the player still being competitive for the 2015 World Cup. But coach Heyneke Meyer says he is loyal to performance, not players, so we can expect to see some new faces earning their caps in the quadrangular series. By KEN BORLAND.
Rewarding form and promoting continuity are Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer’s priorities, which is why he has avoided chopping and changing his team for the Test against Scotland in Nelspruit this weekend.
Meyer has made just two changes to the starting line-up, and they are both enforced alterations. Scrumhalf Jano Vermaak, who impressed with the crispness of his service last weekend, has a torn hamstring and has been replaced by Ruan Pienaar, who will bring 64 caps worth of experience and a strong kicking game to the position.
The other change is at open-side flank where Meyer has backed up his talk about the Springboks being a family and how important off-field values are, by giving Francois Louw the whole week off ahead of his wedding on Sunday.
Marcell Coetzee returns in the number six jersey and has big boots to fill after Louw was a ubiquitous presence against Italy, especially in the first half, with a high tackle count as well as proving to be a thorn in the opposition’s flesh at the breakdown.
The uncapped duo of Siya Kolisi and Piet van Zyl fill the two bench spots opened up by the promotion of Pienaar and Coetzee, and the other change sees Bismarck du Plessis returning after 10 months out with a serious knee ligament injury, primed to get at least 20 minutes at hooker.
But Meyer had intimated before Wednesday’s team announcement that he wanted to use the quadrangular series as an opportunity to explore the talent at his disposal and the change in tack reveals the juggling act the Springbok coach has to undergo in deciding the relative importance of what a player might provide in future, current form and who he already sees as being part of his 2015 World Cup campaign.
“It’s always difficult to pick the Springbok side but I wanted to keep some form of continuity going after we played some of our best rugby in a long while against Italy. The guys who played last week really put up their hands and I didn’t want to just take them out after one game. They deserve another chance.
“There’s a lot of talent out there, but do I pick based on talent, current form or who I think will be at the World Cup? I think this team has a nice mix of those things, but I will never use a Test to get players back into form, they must use SuperRugby for that.
“I’m not loyal to players, I’m loyal to performance,” Meyer said at the Springboks’ hotel on the banks of the Sabi River in Hazyview.
Meyer’s compassionate approach can only bolster the confidence of new Springboks such as Willie le Roux, JJ Engelbrecht, Bjorn Basson, Arno Botha, Juandre Kruger, Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen and Jan Serfontein, who all have less than 10 caps.
“If you look at the bench, I have players with one, three, zero, zero and one cap, so I would say that I’m still throwing the net wide enough. There’s a great culture in the team and a lot of competition for places, but we will definitely use rotation going forward,” Meyer pointed out.
While the selection for the second week of the quadrangular inevitably means Meyer will either have to make wholesale changes for the final round or not get to see all the talent in the squad, the coach said this would not discriminate against the claims of players looking to catch his eye for the Rugby Championship.
“I did battle with that … that the guys playing now might be perceived to have an advantage when I choose the squad for the Rugby Championship. But three months in rugby is a long time and I see every competition as a new start. I look at each squad as its own unit.
“In the Rugby Championship, we’re likely to be playing on slower fields, it will be a more physical battle and we won’t get as much quick ball. But in the Incoming Series, the pace is quicker, the game is more open and we’re getting quicker ball. That’s why we need a 35-man squad,” Meyer said.
Meyer’s handling of hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle has raised some eyebrows, with the in-form Bulls hooker making way for Du Plessis, even though the 46-Test veteran has played just three club games recently and is surely a known quantity.
“Bismarck has played three games of 80 minutes and now moves on to the bench, from where he can bring his experience. He was probably the best hooker in the world before his injury and we want to see what he can do over 20 minutes. Adriaan Strauss has been playing well and I’ve chatted to Chiliboy because he’s also playing his best rugby, but unfortunately he’s going overseas and I’ve always said that if there’s a 50/50 choice then I’ll go with the player based in South Africa,” Meyer explained.
For Kolisi, who will have his Zwide-based father watching him play rugby for just the second time thanks to Saru flying him up to Nelspruit, there is the prospect of not only winning his first Test cap but also proving to Meyer he can fulfil the open-side flanker’s role of playing to the ball.
There is no doubting Kolisi’s work rate or ethic, but the breakdown skills are what Meyer will be focusing on when watching him and Coetzee.
“With no Francois Louw, I’m not certain about the out-and-out specialist open-side position. We have mostly northern hemisphere referees these days in international rugby and that makes it a totally different battle at the breakdown. I even felt we didn’t contest enough last weekend, but that’s understandable because in SuperRugby, if you do contest, there’s a 50/50 chance you’ll land up with a penalty against you.
“After Francois Louw, I’m not sure who the next best open-side flank is. And guys like Heinrich Brussow, there’s no reason for him not to be in the mix,” Meyer said.
With the coach having surprisingly added fresh fuel himself to the Brussow selection fire, it means there are still positions that he is not yet sure about for the Rugby Championship, however well the Springboks back up the impressive display against the Italians.
Fullback Le Roux proved his ability to create space even at Test level, but will his less flashy skills be up to the grind of intense Tests against New Zealand?
Can the exciting JJ Engelbrecht be a consistent force at outside centre, or is it the better long-term option to move Jean de Villiers there and introduce the precocious talents of Jan Serfontein at number 12?
Does Morne Steyn have the flyhalf position sewn up or is the coach’s support of Pat Lambie more than just talk?
With all the loose-forward depth available to Meyer, which is the best combination rather than the three best players?
And does the current front row provide enough scrum stability or should the Cheetahs’ props be introduced?
At the moment, the questions the Springbok team have to answer are all coming from the coach rather than the opposition, with Scotland definitely the worse for wear after the battering they received in the collisions from the Samoans last weekend. DM
Springbok team (caps in brackets): 15-Willie le Roux (1), 14-Bryan Habana (84), 13-JJ Engelbrecht (2), 12-Jean de Villiers (85), 11-Bjorn Basson (7), 10-Morne Steyn (43), 9-Ruan Pienaar (64), 8-Pierre Spies (51), 7-Arno Botha (1), 6-Marcell Coetzee (13), 5-Juandre Kruger (9), 4-Eben Etzebeth (12), 3-Jannie du Plessis (43), 2-Adriaan Strauss (22), 1-Tendai Mtawarira (42). Replacements – 16-Bismarck du Plessis (46), 17-Trevor Nyakane (1), 18-Coenie Oosthuizen (3), 19-Flip van der Merwe (24), 20-Siya Kolisi (0), 21-Piet van Zyl (0), 22-Pat Lambie (21), 23-Jan Serfontein (1).
Photo: South Africa ‘Springboks’ rugby union team head coach Heyneke Meyer looks upward while answering a question during a news conference ahead of their Autumn Test rugby match against Scotland, in Edinburgh, Scotland November 14, 2012. REUTERS/David Moir
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