Jacques van der Westhuyzen
London: With three days to go before the Springboks’ biggest Test of the season, head coach Heyneke Meyer has expressed his concern that his players are mentally and physically exhausted.
The success of Meyer’s first year in charge of the Boks pretty much depends on what happens at Twickenham against England, and the Bok boss conceded his team are in for a huge overall examination on Saturday.
“I don’t want to make excuses and I don’t want to put my foot in it or jinx the team, but it’s really been a long season. Most of the guys are carrying bumps and bruises, and with this being the last game of the tour and for the year, I know it’s going to be tough,” said Meyer yesterday when he named an unchanged starting team for the match. JP Pietersen (groin) was the only real concern injury-wise, and he will undergo a fitness test tomorrow, but he is believed to be fine.
“I need one more great performance from this team,” said Meyer, whose record this year reads: played 11, won six, drawn two, lost three.
“I know the guys will always lift themselves against England, but I am worried. I know the players will be there mentally, they’re real warriors who play for each other and their country, but I hope their bodies will be up for the challenge.
“It’s been a tough week (with Eben Etzebeth’s hearing and several players missing training because of injury) and that’s why we’ve had to manage the players the way we have. And we’ll continue to do so for the remaining days. Some of them won’t train again today (yesterday),” said Meyer.
Asked if England would then have the advantage going into the Test, Meyer said he didn’t necessarily think so. “When they toured South Africa in June, it was the end of their season and we were fresh, so now the roles are reversed.
“But I’d like to think that we’ve been together for three weeks now, and we’ve got good continuity in the team.
“I also know the guys can play much better than they have up to now (against Ireland and Scotland), so this is an opportunity for them to show what they can do. The Boks are a proud bunch of guys, and even though it’s the last game of the season, I believe that if your mind is in the right place, anything is possible.”
Meyer said having Etzebeth available for the match was a massive bonus. The big lock was cleared of eye-gouging allegations on Tuesday night. “His availability makes a huge difference, he’s close to one of the best locks in the world right now, and he’s one of our enforcers up front,” said Meyer.
“We’ve got a 100 percent lineout record on this tour and Eben’s played a big part in that, so to be able to go into this game with the forward combinations intact makes a huge difference.”
The only changes to the side that faced Scotland are on the bench, where Pat Cilliers replaces the injured CJ van der Linde (hamstring), while Elton Jantjies could make his third Test appearance if he gets on to the field, taking over from Morné Steyn.
“The plan was always to give Elton a run on the tour. He’s shown earlier in the season that he can play Test rugby. It’s also good for his development as a player to experience the conditions here and to play in front of a big crowd like Twickenham,” said Meyer.
Meanwhile, despite Meyer’s concerns, grizzled tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis has given the assurance the Springboks will stand up physically to England.
Under-fire England coach Stuart Lancaster has made a few telling changes to his squad for the Bok match, bringing in some big and powerful forwards and backs, with flank Tom Wood predicting the English are going to pile into the Boks on Saturday in an effort to show their toughness.
“It’s going to be a tough physical challenge ... if we’re not prepared, if we don’t meet it head-on, I will be surprised and disappointed,” Wood told yesterday’s Guardian newspaper. He added, referring to the Bok players: “They’re the type of players who, as opposed to running at space, pick out somebody to run at.
“They look for your biggest guy and get theirs to run at him as hard as they can to see who comes out on top. There will be an element of that at the weekend ... it’s us against them,” he said.
Du Plessis said the Boks were relishing the opportunity of taking on England on their own turf, after winning the three-Test series 2-0 in South African earlier this year.
“We’re going to have to front up,” said Du Plessis yesterday. “They’re a big team, with big guys up front and at the back and we’d be fools if we thought anything other than a big physical test was on the way.
“I don’t want to single this pack out for special mention because all packs have their own strengths and weaknesses, but what I can say is this pack is maturing very well.”
15 Zane Kirchner, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Jean de Villiers (capt), 11 Francois Hougaard, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Gurthrö Steenkamp. Bench: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Heinke van der Merwe, 18 Pat Cilliers, 19 Flip van der Merwe, 20 Marcell Coetzee, 21 Elton Jantjies, 22 Jaco Taute, 23 Lwazi Mvovo.