Cape Town – Schalk Burger’s return to rugby on Friday wasn’t related to the primary text of what this week has been about for the Springboks, but there is a connection with the subtext – which is the build-up to 2015 World Cup in England.
Whether or not Burger will make a full comeback, and whether or not he – or for that matter Springbok captain Jean de Villiers – will be part of the global event which will be taking place two years from now is a matter for debate. For now it should be sufficient to say they are both part of Heyneke Meyer’s considerations.
Two years may sound like a long time, but if you consider that this time two years ago the Boks were in the midst of their 2011 World Cup campaign in New Zealand, then you realise it isn’t that long at all.
And while it may seem to us that Meyer has only just started out on his journey, he is almost at the halfway point to the event that, as it tends to in modern rugby, will determine the success or failure of his tenure.
Of course, there should be more to it than that, and when he took over as the new coach last January, Meyer said he didn’t want everything to just revolve around the World Cup. One of his tasks was to make the Springboks win more consistently between World Cups. And with a win percentage of more than 72% after a poor start, he is well on his way to doing so.
It is though not an objective completely unrelated to the World Cup. Obviously, if your team is successful, becomes used to winning, and picks up trophies along the way, the tournament can be approached with confidence.
If the Boks do go on to win the 2015 event, the period incorporating the remaining two matches of the Rugby Championship, starting with today’s at Newlands against Australia and ending with next week’s potential decider against New Zealand in Johannesburg, could well be looked back on as a crucial moment.
The World Cup is about winning big matches on successive weekends once the tournament enters the play-offs, and that is what the Boks need to do to win the Championship.
What has become clear this week is that the South Africans consider themselves to be on a knock-out footing. If they get through the next seven days as winners, it will be a massive boost not only for the team but also the individuals steadily building up international experience.
Meyer was unwilling to mention a number when asked this week what he thought the optimum would be when it comes to the average number of caps he would like his squad to boast at the start of RWC 2015.
“It’s hard to say, because you probably need a mixture of players who have played a lot of international rugby, and guys who are coming through,” said Meyer.
“What I do know though is you need to have several players who have played 50 Tests or more that can provide the experienced core of the team.”
In that sense, Meyer is well served. Burger and De Villiers are in that bracket, so is Bryan Habana, Fourie du Preez, Bismarck du Plessis and Pierre Spies (not playing but due back next year), and they will be joined on Saturday by Morné Steyn and Jannie du Plessis.
Of course, at a corresponding stage of the gap between the two previous World Cups, the Boks were in the midst of a triumphant season which included a series win over the British Lions and a Tri-Nations title. Where the ball may have been dropped by previous coach Peter de Villiers was when he agreed that veteran John Smit should continue to lead the team for the next two years regardless of his form.
There are enough players building experience and developing strength in depth in his squad for Meyer not to make the same mistake. On the captaincy front, it’s unlikely all of De Villiers, Burger and Fourie du Preez go over the hill between now and 2015, but if they do, the two hookers, Du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss, are building up leadership experience in their vice-captaincy roles.
Jan Serfontein is only playing a bit-part now, but the former age-group star is steadily building international experience, and the smart money should be on him being ready to fire should he be needed in England in 2015.
At the start of the year fullback was identified as one of the few potential problem areas for Meyer, but the emergence of Willie le Roux has added back-three options. Patrick Lambie filled the last line of defence at the last World Cup and did extremely well there. At the moment he is the back-up flyhalf, but that might change when Johan Goosen returns from his long-term injury.
Yes, Goosen is still in the picture, and while it is a pity he has missed out on building up precious experience because of his injuries, he still has time to play himself back into the frame. Unfortunately, while he could be ready to be part of the end of year tour to France, Wales and Scotland, he is unlikely to be selected, as Meyer has stressed he won’t take him if he doesn’t get game time first.
Another player in the frame – but people may have forgotten about – is Sharks utility back Frans Steyn, the precocious new kid of the 2007 World Cup who has also struggled with injury since his return after a few seasons in France.
He will probably also miss the end-of-year tour, but if he makes a successful comeback during the next Super Rugby season, he provides a compelling alternative option at 15.
Along similar lines to Steyn is JP Pietersen. The wing is playing in Japan but will be available for the year-end tour. In the meantime, Le Roux is doing a good job of ensuring he is not an automatic pick at No 14.
There is so much depth being built up in some areas that Meyer’s problem come World Cup time could well be focused on who to leave out rather than who to include.
For instance, Burger’s return added him to a list of loose-forwards that already includes Duane Vermeulen, Francois Louw, Willem Alberts, Arno Botha (injured but highly promising), Spies, Siya Kolisi, Marcell Coetzee and a host of other youngsters who all look to have international potential.