Johannesburg – Last week, exactly two years since the World Cup final in Auckland, the Webb Ellis Cup was prised from the New Zealand Rugby Union’s trophy cabinet by the IRB so that it could be used on a world-wide marketing tour for the 2015 event in London.
Two years – that is how long international coaches such as Heyneke Meyer have to complete their team jigsaw puzzles, and the Springbok coach will be hoping that this month’s European tour will reveal some missing pieces.
Meyer has said he is keen to see how the players perform on the heavy, wet fields of Cardiff, Edinburgh and Paris that will mirror the conditions of the England-hosted World Cup. The Boks have played nine Tests this year and each one has been on dry, fast pitches. It has not rained once, and Meyer won’t mind if the conditions are inclement on this tour so he can learn more about fleet-footed players such as Willie le Roux, who have excelled on Southern Hemisphere pitches.
When Meyer took over two years ago, he said he would not be solely World Cup focused and that his aim was to win every Test and that the World Cup team would naturally evolve over the four years between events.
This contrasts with Jake White’s policy of picking what he hoped would be his eventual World Cup team for his very first Test in 2004, and he stuck as much as possible with the same players.
But this does not mean Meyer has not had one eye on the World Cup and he has been proactive in bringing back players from overseas.
For instance, he has seen that South Africa have the worst depth at scrumhalf for many a year and brought back Fourie du Preez from Japan. He will be the general.
Outside centre has also been problematic and the coach has managed to get his hands on Jaque Fourie. Meyer has made no secret that he rates the 30-year-old as South Africa’s best centre and has unsuccessfully tried over the last two years to have him released from his Japanese commitments for the international season.
Now he has got it right and Fourie will slot straight in at No13 for JJ Engelbrecht, who has played reasonably in his 10 Tests but is not yet in the class of Fourie. Likewise, JP Pietersen will be back on the right wing after missing this year’s Tests because of his move to Japan. He will be pencilled in for the World Cup.
But not all the foreign-based players Meyer has recalled are necessarily in his plans. Veteran Bakkies Botha is joining the squad in Cardiff from his French club Toulon, and the coach has said that he wants the 34-year-old to mentor young locks Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth, the likely second row pairing for the World Cup.
It was planned for Du Toit to be blooded in the June Test matches but a sternum injury suffered in Super Rugby put paid to that. He will surely see action on this tour in the No5 lock role that he occupied with distinction for the Sharks in the Currie Cup final.
This tour gives Meyer an opportunity to examine his depth at tighthead prop. Jannie du Plessis has started every Test this year and it is probably a blessing in disguise that he has pulled out because of injury because he not only needs the rest but it also forces Meyer to look at the other contenders.
Coenie Oosthuizen is in the process of converting from loosehead to tighthead and will be tested in the latter position and uncapped players in Lourens Adriaanse and Frans Malherbe will get game time to state their cases.
This year the Boks have scored more tries than any other team, even the All Blacks. Their tally of 23 tries is the exact number they scored last year and Meyer wants to add significantly to that total on this tour, even if conditions are not as conducive to try-scoring rugby as they are in the Southern Hemisphere. The coach has emphasised that the Boks must continue their commitment to attacking rugby.
Saturday, November 9 v Wales, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, 7.30pm SA time
Sunday, November 17 v Scotland, Murrayfield, Edinburgh, 5pm
Saturday, November 23 v France, Stade de France, Paris, 10pm