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It may have been dis- ingenuous to suggest there is a lock crisis or a complete leadership void, but for new Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, the timing of the leak of his approach to Victor Matfield could not have been better.
With Schalk Burger, the man many consider the Bok skipper-elect, still battling his way back from injury, Fourie du Preez expressing a reluctance to lead the Boks even if he was asked, and Jaque Fourie announcing his commitments are now in Japan, it did make Meyer’s desire to get Matfield back onto the playing field more understandable.
And then there was the injury to Andries Bekker, to his lower back, where he’s had problems before. Another No 5 lock with Springbok experience, Alistair Hargreaves of the Sharks, then added further fuel to Meyer’s argument with the announcement that he would continue his career with English club Saracens at the conclusion of the current Super Rugby season.
It’s easy to just glibly write off Meyer’s concerns by pointing to the many young locks coming through, and there is no denying that Eben Etzebeth of the Stormers is a special player, and Juandre Kruger of the Bulls is showing a lot of promise. But the Stormers coaches were concerned enough about the prospect of sending the still green Etzebeth into the match against the Reds without Bekker alongside him, so you can understand if Meyer wishes to be conservative at an even higher level.
Young Bulls lock Flip van der Merwe has played for the Boks, but he hasn’t always convinced and has a tendency to give away some silly crucial penalties. Last year’s under-strength away leg of the Tri-Nations, of which Van der Merwe was a part, showed us the extent of the shortfall of experience in a Bok team that had been dominated for several years by the core of the group blooded by Jake White in 2004.
And when it comes to leaders, the cupboard isn’t as laden as South Africans think. Apart from Burger and Matfield, the other strong captaincy candidate would be the Cheetahs’ Adriaan Strauss, who Meyer is known to rate highly.
Make no mistake, Strauss doesn’t just have the captaincy attributes that are necessary, he is also an excellent hooker and would walk into the national teams of most other countries. But would Meyer be prepared to risk choosing a captain that plays the same position as Bismarck du Plessis? Then there is Chiliboy Ralepelle, also a potential captain for some time in this four-year cycle, who also plays the same position.
Jean de Villiers has been forwarded as a potential candidate but his suitability for the job is unrealistic if you consider how strongly Frans Steyn is likely to push him for his No12 jersey.
The best captain in the country – if you are looking just at leadership potential and ability to inspire those around him – is probably Luke Watson. But his EP Kings team are not playing Super Rugby.
If there is someone who should feel sore about Meyer’s approach to Matfield, it is Burger. He has had critics of his captaincy in the time he has led the Stormers, but ironically they’ve been similar to those levelled at Matfield – a tendency to eschew kickable penalties in favour of tap-kicks and other poor on-field decisions being among them.
And while it is true that Matfield led the Bok teams that scored notable wins – Dunedin in 2008, Twickenham 2010 – he was also the leader that was so tactically inept on the day they lost to Scotland at Murrayfield.
Meyer’s decision appears to have been made, however, and rumours of his approach to Matfield have been circulating since the start of the year.
It is now up to Matfield to decide whether to take a sabbatical from coaching and commentating – and in the end, it will probably come down to how badly he wants to get back onto a stage he bade farewell to at the last World Cup.