Imagine, if you will, being Heyneke Meyer right now as he plans his campaign against the touring English next month. Plan? What really can you plan as you sit on the edge of your couch and hold thumbs while clutching lucky rabbit feet as the players you are considering for selection clobber each other into submission in the rash of local derbies that bring Super Rugby to its intermission ahead of the England tour.
We are talking about a coach who has been out of hands-on coaching for three years but has grasped the infamous Springbok coaching chalice believing that it is not always poisoned. And, being a man of faith, he knows more than ever that his team to face England depends on who emerges unscathed from the three rounds of tremendously physical South African derbies this month where, to put it crudely, the players go out to “moer” each other.
The Springbok coach’s situation has always been a difficult and unique one. For three months you watch Super Rugby from your sitting room and then a week before the June international series you get the players you have been watching on TV and you have to turn them into a winning combination. And if the Boks lose, you are a poor coach – nobody stands back and says: “This poor bloke had only a week to properly work with the players …”
All Meyer has been able to do is host planning camps during the bye weeks in the competition and it was as an exceptionally good strategy because he was at least able to convey to a broad base of players his vision for the Boks, without hammering them in training sessions when their bye week demanded that they had their feet up in rest.
As it has turned out, the length of the competition has in some ways helped Meyer because many players that were injured way back in February and March have recovered and are playing again. And just less than a month out from the first Test against England in Durban, Meyer is probably only missing three or four first-choice players, but that figure could easily double over the next fortnight or so.
It would be a brave man, for instance, to bet on no serious injuries emanating from the Cheetahs versus Sharks match in Bloemfontein this weekend, and what about the Sharks-Stormers game on May 26?
This weekend, the Bulls play a tough encounter in Dunedin against the Highlanders, and what if Morné Steyn gets taken out? Coach Meyer has already lost Johann Goosen for the season and if Meyer is injured he would have to rearrange his thinking and pick Patrick Lambie at 10 – which is hardly a bad thing – but it interferes with his planning because he would now have to pick a new fullback.
The coach has already lost two first choice players in flank Schalk Burger and No 8 Duane Vermeulen – yes he was going to pick the latter ahead of Pierre Spies – and it is known that he fancies Ryan Kankowski as his second choice in the position but a broken thumb meant the Shark has not had enough game time to warrant selection.
The following is Meyer’s starting team, but let’s see what role injuries play over the next few weeks.
Springboks (Probable): Patrick Lambie, JP Pietersen, Jean de Villiers (capt), Francois Steyn, Bryan Habana Morné Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies, Marcell Coetzee, Heinrich Brüssow, Andries Bekker, Eben Etsebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira – The Mercury