Heyneke Meyer was not shy to admit at Wednesday’s team announcement that he is as nervous as any of the three players that will be making their debut on Saturday against England at Kings Park, but he reckons it is a good thing the butterflies in his tummy are all flying in the same direction.
“When they fly in different directions you are in trouble,” he smiled, but he is confident the 22 butterflies he has picked are the best available in South African air space and that they are flying in squadron formation.
He is probably right. While there are parochial question marks about the composition of his greater 32 picked for the series, there can generally be no qualms about the starting XV, with the possible exception of fullback where he has made a gut instinct call on Zane Kirchner ahead of Patrick Lambie (and, indeed, Gio Aplon). But the one thing nobody can dispute when it comes to Meyer is that he selects who he thinks is best for South Africa on a particular day against a particular team.
“I have always said that I will only pick players that are 110 percent hungry to play for South Africa and this 22 have reflected that in the attitude I have seen this week,” he said. “I have been coaching for 20 years, and this has been the best week I have had in terms of pure attitude from the players, and I’m not just saying that because it’s the Springboks.
“When I had a meeting with the medical staff this morning, I couldn’t believe it when they said everyone would train,” he continued. “Every player has trained every day, and only in my wildest dreams did I think that would be possible after the Super Rugby derbies at the weekend.”
Meyer said he could feel amongst the squad that there was a dawning of a new era.
“I can sense that the players know that good enough is not good enough – only the best is good enough,” he said. “I’ve been very impressed with the players. We’ve really trained hard, with a lot of one-on-ones and video sessions to get the game-plan sorted. I’m really happy with where we are and the attitude of the players and the way they’ve adapted to the stress. They really want to play for their country and I can’t ask anything more of them.”
After confirming Jean de Villiers as captain on Monday, Meyer announced battleship Bismarck du Plessis as vice-captain, this giving him strong leadership in the engine room. Du Plessis has emphatically stepped out of the shadow of John Smit in that he is now the first choice hooker and in a leadership role of his own.
“I believe Bismarck is a great leader and that we have three or four of the best hookers in the world,” Meyer said. “Adriaan Strauss will replace Bismarck at some stage during the game and take over the vice-captaincy. Chiliboy Ralepelle and Tiaan Liebenberg are playing really well at their unions as well.
“I want to give guys chances and ensure there is strong leadership in the team. I believe Bismarck is a very good choice, I’ve been happy with what I’ve seen so far from him. He is a very tough competitor and brings something different to the party.”
Regarding picking Kirchner ahead of Lambie, Meyer said: “We have not had a lot of time to prepare. When I looked at the fullbacks, I felt both were top quality but I went for combinations and guys that know each other well.
“If you look at the front row, locks, loose-forwards and even 8-9-10 as well as 15, they are all guys used to playing with each other. Patrick is a great player and there is a good chance he’ll come off the bench and make a difference.”
Meyer said he was most excited about the debuts of locks Eben Etzebeth and Juandré Kruger, and openside flank Marcell Coetzee. “It’s quite a strange thing for South Africa to have two new locks starting (after the Matfield-Bakkies era) and obviously it’s a huge step up for them and they need to prove that they can play at this level. I’m very confident they will, and Marcell has played great rugby this year and I believe he brings something different to the party and will be a superstar in years to come. Both Marcell and Eben are still under-21, they are two youngsters that have proved themselves in Super Rugby as has Juandré.”
Starting XV: Zane Kirchner, JP Pietersen, Jean de Villiers (capt), Frans Steyn, Bryan Habana, Morné Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Juandré Kruger, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira.
Replacements: Adriaan Strauss, Coenie Oosthuiz-en, Flip van der Merwe, Keegan Daniel, Ruan Pienaar, Patrick Lambie, Wynand Olivier – The Star