Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has recalled scrumhalf Fourie du Preez and hooker Adriaan Strauss to the starting line-up for their crucial Rugby Championship Test against Australia at Newlands in Cape Town on Saturday. And what’s going to happen is anyone’s guess. By KEN BORLAND.
Du Preez has not appeared in the Springbok starting XV since playing in the infamous Rugby World Cup quarterfinal against the Wallabies in 2011 and has just one highly impressive cameo appearance off the bench – in the drubbing of Argentina at FNB Stadium last month – behind him.
But Ruan Pienaar has been inconsistent in terms of his service from the base of the rucks and scrums, performing with aplomb in the impressive wins over Argentina in Johannesburg and Australia in Brisbane, but then struggling in Argentina and in the last game against the All Blacks in Auckland.
Du Preez’s pedigree, experience, vision, educated boot and pacy, slick service will all benefit the Springboks, who rely so much on field position and quick ball, and there will be few dissenting voices when it comes to him being preferred to Pienaar.
The other change Meyer has made is more controversial and indicates that the same problem that bedevilled his predecessor, Peter de Villiers, may have emerged to cloud South Africa’s progress to the next World Cup just as it did in the build-up to 2011.
Perhaps the toughest question De Villiers faced during his tenure was who to pick in the number two jersey – Captain Fantastic John Smit, a real pillar of strength in the set-pieces, or Bismarck du Plessis, in-your-face, combative and a tremendous presence in the breakdowns and loose.
Strauss, wonderfully in-form himself, has been Meyer’s first choice in all but five of the 19 Tests he has been in charge for, but that was mostly due to the serious knee injury Du Plessis suffered at the start of last year’s Rugby Championship.
The impact Du Plessis made in the match against the All Blacks, while he wasn’t unjustly sitting in the cooler or in the changeroom, showed that he is that rare breed of player – the individual that really can make a difference in a Test match, all on his own.
But the one-man wrecking machine will be on the bench against the Wallabies, Meyer preferring to use him as an impact player this week. But considering what an impact Du Plessis makes, wouldn’t it make sense to have him on for as many of the 80+ minutes as possible?
Strauss is the ultimate professional and perhaps has the edge on Du Plessis in the set-pieces, but the Wallabies will be happy they don’t initially have to face the ferocity of Du Plessis.
The basis for the change would appear to be the agreement the coach made with the two hookers at the start of the season, but this only delays the tough decision Meyer will inevitably have to make at some stage.
“First off, I want to make it clear that I didn’t drop those guys [Du Plessis and Pienaar] as they both know where they stand and I can tell you now that Bismarck will be back as the starting hooker for the next match we play,” Meyer said after announcing the team on Wednesday.
“The trust there is between a player and a coach is one of the biggest things in rugby and we had an agreement before the international season started when Bismarck would start and when Adriaan would start. I am a simple person and a simple coach and I like to keep things simple. As far as possible I want to keep the squad together as a 23-man group, and the players know where they stand and when they are going to be used.”
One hopes that the move isn’t an attempt to check Du Plessis’ exuberant physicality on the park … sure, Strauss is likely to give away fewer penalties, but Bismarck really makes his presence felt in the breakdowns, where the line between legal and illegal is incredibly thin.
Meyer gave a more convincing argument for the return of Du Preez, saying it was about his intellectual capital as much as anything else.
“It is very important, and I have told the players, that what I am loyal to is not the individual, but to performance. We want what is best for the team, and while Ruan is an outstanding scrumhalf and has built experience, I just believe that Fourie is in a league of his own in that position.
“When he is present, I feel like we have another coach on the field. He has enormous influence and leadership ability, and is a good organiser. Jean de Villiers as the captain is also a good organiser, but having Fourie there takes a lot of pressure off Jean.
“Fourie is a great player not just for his kicking, which everyone knows about, but also for his ability to take gaps and to put players in spaces. His speed of pass has really improved since he has been in Japan and that is a big plus for us,” Meyer said.
The success of the team in hammering the Wallabies in Brisbane has encouraged Meyer to make as few changes as possible, but the Springboks know they will obviously have to come up with something better this weekend to repeat the treatment and earn another bonus point that will keep them neck-and-neck with New Zealand.
“We are not building up to this match with the expectation that we are up against the same Australian team that we beat in Brisbane, and we know that this will be a very different game and a different challenge,” Strauss said this week.
“We can take some confidence from the Brisbane game, but we also know that the defeat would have stung them. They will be supremely motivated for this game, and they will be looking to up their game in the forwards, particularly. We are expecting a lot of emotion to be put into their scrumming, and they have had time to work on a few things.
“But we are positive too and we have also been working hard on that aspect of our game and it has gone well for us this year.”
Cape Town have had an exceptionally wet spring, so the going will be heavy at Newlands, which won’t suit the Wallabies but will also make try-scoring and getting a bonus point more difficult for the Springboks.
But with the next World Cup being played in Europe, the Springboks will want to show their pressure game can still get the better of the Australians, and that it can still lead to try-scoring opportunities.
Team – 15-Zane Kirchner, 14-Willie le Roux, 13-JJ Engelbrecht, 12-Jean de Villiers, 11-Bryan Habana, 10-Morne Steyn, 9-Fourie du Preez, 8-Duane Vermeulen, 7-Willem Alberts, 6-Francois Louw, 5-Flip van der Merwe, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Jannie du Plessis, 2-Adriaan Strauss, 1-Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements – 16-Bismarck du Plessis, 17-Gurthro Steenkamp, 18-Coenie Oosthuizen, 19-Juandre’ Kruger, 20-Siya Kolisi, 21-Ruan Pienaar, 22-Pat Lambie, 23-Jan Serfontein. DM
Photo: South Africa’s Springboks’ Zane Kirchner (top) is tackled by Australia’s Wallabies’ Anthony Faingaa during their Rugby Championship test match in Pretoria, September 29, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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