One’s got to wonder whether Heyneke Meyer will ever be able to pick his strongest team.
If it’s not players leaving for clubs abroad – many of whom are not available for Springbok selection because of clauses in their club contracts – then it’s injuries robbing the national coach of the chance of fielding a proper first choice XV.
If you had to ask Meyer if he’s ever selected the choice he wants he’d give you an emphatic No! And just a year out from the 2015 World Cup Meyer continues to battle the odds. The fact the Boks have lost only a handful of games since he took over in 2012 is a minor miracle.
The latest high profile casualty – Victor Matfield – will leave the Boks with a gaping hole to fill in this year’s Rugby Championship. News from the Bok camp is that the veteran lock might only miss next weekend’s opener against Argentina at Loftus Versfeld, but it would come as no surprise if he was to be ruled out for much longer.
Matfield, who returned to rugby this year after a two year absence, has a small tear in his knee cartilage and will miss next weekend’s Test.
While the Boks said yesterday Matfield would initially be treated conservatively, a final decision on his participation in the rest of the competition would be taken next week. It is a hammer blow to the Boks, who already have a lengthy injury list. Besides Flip van der Merwe and Pieter-Steph du Toit – both locks who have played successfully in the Bok No 5 jersey – other players on the injured list include Fourie du Preez, Jaque Fourie, Pierre Spies and Arno Botha.
Added to this, captain Jean de Villiers (knee) is still a major worry ahead of the Argentina Test.
The experienced midfielder hasn’t played a Test since November last year and a call on his readiness to step back into action will be made next week only.
“We’ll only know at a later stage if Jean will be ready to face Argentina,” said Meyer. “We’ll give him as much time as possible to recover, however, replacement cover can be called up if he is ruled out of the Test at Loftus.”
With Matfield out and doubt about De Villiers, the Boks may very well have a new leader by this time next week. Just who that will be remains to be seen, but hooker Bismarck du Plessis or Francois Louw would be the front-runners.
Meyer will not be a happy coach at the moment. On Monday he was singing the praises of Matfield, saying, “We’d be in big trouble without Victor.”
Well, trouble has struck.
“I was happy with Stephan Lewies’ performance in June, but to take nothing away from the player, the opposition wasn’t the greatest,” said Meyer. “Flip is injured and while we have Lood de Jager who can play five lock, his best position is four. It’s a huge concern still, the No 5 lock. We’re going to have to work very hard with Lood and Eben (Etzebeth).”
De Jager appears to be in line to replace Matfield for next week’s Test, with either Bakkies Botha or Etzebeth playing at four. Etzebeth, however, has also only returned to action after a long injury layoff and has been sent back to Western Province to get game time under his belt in the Currie Cup this weekend. Frans Malherbe, also a returnee from injury, has also been told to get on to the field this weekend.
A replacement for Matfield will be announced today, with either Lewies or even Ulster-based Franco van der Merwe set for a call-up.