Will Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer try to fix what’s not broken by picking Victor Matfield ahead of Lood de Jager, despite the latter’s sterling form, when the Boks meet Wales at the weekend? It’s a delightful choose-your-own-adventure mystery which will satisfy even the most hardened masochistic Boks' fan. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
On Wednesday, when Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer names his team to play against Wales in the quarterfinal of the Rugby World Cup, he will arguably be under more scrutiny than when he announced his team to travel to the tournament. Prior to the World Cup, Meyer might have been excused by the argument that he “does not know” exactly who make up his best team – despite having had the whole duration of the Rugby Championship to prepare. Now, though, he surely knows that the young Lood de Jager’s partnership with Eben Etzebeth is what works best for the Boks.
But as with all things related to the Springboks lately, things never straightforward. The Boks will face a Wales team who have, through somewhat of a miracle and with a little bit of help from England’s shambles, made it to the quarterfinals. As far as teams South Africa will meet in the knockouts go, Wales are arguably the “weakest”, but that does not mean they should be underestimated. And thus, we find ourselves with a selection poser of epic proportions.
Victor Matfield, he of the greying beard whom Meyer wooed out of retirement for the World Cup because the coach is so in love with the “experience factor”, is expected to be fit again. In the early stages of this World Cup, prior to Matfield’s dodgy hamstring giving way, De Jager had already felt the wrath of Meyer’s anti-logic. Following South Africa’s shock loss to Japan, De Jager got the chop in favour of Matfield, despite being one of the best players on the pitch in that defeat.
There is no doubt that Matfield is a wily old fox and when it comes to line-outs, he is king. However, even the coach with his sheer disregard for logic, has pointed out that South Africa have lost just one line-out in Matfield’s absence. Meyer reckons it is down to the 38-year old’s coaching of Etzebeth and De Jager, which begs the question why Matfield was not simply asked to join the team in a coaching capacity? That answer lies somewhere between Meyer’s ears and not even a strength, weakness, opportunities and threats analysis from rugby’s best brains would be able to decipher it.
Luckily for all of us armchair observers, the “choose your own Springbok adventure” does not end there. The Matfield conundrum also brings with it the question of the captaincy. If the veteran was not injured when Jean de Villiers’ streak of bad luck continued, he would surely have been handed the skipper’s armband. Fourie du Preez has done a sterling job in his stand-in gig, despite detractors thinking he was far too much of an introvert to get it right.
And so, here we are with a cacophony of pontification to delight everyone watching from afar. Does Meyer opt for starting Matfield and making him captain– using De Jager as an impact player off the bench, a role far more suited to a sprightly youngster than the older gentleman? Or does Meyer have the balls to start De Jager, put Matfield on the bench and bring him on only if his sage experience is needed for urgent intervention? The answer will be revealed on Wednesday when the team is announced and the more optimistic among us will be hoping that Meyer has actually learned something from this last month. In the last four weeks, Meyer has picked a flyhalf and stuck with him and even when the Boks played a weakened USA team, he stuck with what he might believe is his best team, even if that did not please everyone.
For Meyer, though, it was the only option. The more combinations play together, the more chemistry develops which is why it would be a damn shame if De Jager is relegated to the bench.
Slowly but surely, the Springboks have blossomed into a team that is looking more balanced, helped by the fact that some of the senior men are hitting form at the right time. Their brand of rugby might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s been effective in the latter stages of the pool games and it would be foolish to undo all of that. DM
Photo: Victor Matfield of the Springboks (3-R) reacts with team mates after the rugby match between South Africa and a World XV in Cape Town, South Africa 11 July 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA