Johannesburg – With four weeks to go to the Springboks’ first Test of the season, rugby writer Jacques van der Westhuyzen looks at the options available to Bok boss Heyneke Meyer and finds there will be few surprises in the first selected team of the season
Zane Kirchner was Meyer’s first choice last year, but the Bulls man has struggled with injury in 2013 and if he can prove himself fit in the coming weeks expect him to be back in the No15 jersey. The thing is there are not too many other candidates sticking up their hands. The Cheetahs’ Hennie Daniller has been okay, Joe Pietersen is not Test-level quality, even though his goal-kicking is top-notch, while Riaan Viljoen is unlikely to get the nod from Meyer. The only other real options were Jaco Taute and Frans Steyn, but both are injured and out for the season ... leaving Meyer with not too many choices.
South Africa have quality wings, many of whom could fill in at fullback if required, among them JP Pietersen, Willie le Roux and Gio Aplon. With two places available on the wings, expect Pietersen and Bryan Habana to be there. The other options would be Le Roux, but he hasn’t even featured in a training group, Bjorn Basson, Lwazi Mvovo, Lionel Mapoe and Raymond Rhule. It doesn’t matter who Meyer picks, all of the above would be quality selections.
Robert Ebersohn has staked his claim this season; he’s strong going forward and well-organised in defence, but Jean de Villiers, who captained the team last year, is still the best bet at inside centre. He’s been in great form of late and Meyer will be praying he stays fit. Juan de Jongh looks most likely to play at 13, but don’t count out JJ Engelbrecht ... a powerful attacking player, but perhaps not quite up to scratch defensively. Jan Serfontein has tons of talent, and will play for the Boks, but just not now.
At the end of last season it seemed Morné Steyn’s days as Bok No10 were over. However, he’s regained his form this year and could very well be back in the national jersey next month. The Bulls are South Africa’s top try-scoring outfit and that has much to do with Steyn’s vision and ability to read the game when on the front foot. Pat Lambie has had a disappointing 2013, but he should be the back-up, while Elton Jantjies, who promised so much at the Lions, has, sadly, gone backwards at the Stormers. Injuries haven’t helped, of course. The other genuine contender, Johan Goosen, is injured, but could there be a surprise in the offing ... with Demetri Catrakilis getting a chance?
Phew ... no one really stands head and shoulders above anyone else. It is the one position where South Africa are a little thin at the moment. On form, Jano Vermaak is the best option – he’s experienced, has a great pass and knows Steyn well. Francois Hougaard has battled with injury this year and didn’t look too flash at No9 in 2012, but he could still be Meyer’s man. Cobus Reinach impressed for the Sharks when they were winning, but injuries have also set him back. Other contenders are Sarel Pretorius, Piet van Zyl, Charl McLeod and Dewald Duvenhage. The Kings’ Shaun Venter may also get a look-in and so, too, Ruan Pienaar, from Ulster.
The long-term injury picked up by Duane Vermeulen is a massive blow. He is without doubt South Africa’s best eighthman and in his absence Pierre Spies will in all probability get the nod. Meyer, though, is a big fan of Ryan Kankowski, while Keegan Daniel could come into the frame again. Then there’s the claim by the Kings’ Jacques Engelbrecht and the Cheetahs’ Philip van der Walt ... in fact, a number of players could slot in at the back of the scrum.
Loose-forward is not a problem area for Meyer and it’ll be deciding who to leave out rather than pick which will give him his biggest headache. A fit-again Willem Alberts will come into the reckoning, then there’s Siya Kolisi and Heinrich Brüssow, young Arno Botha, promising Lappies Labuschagne and the two Kings men, Cornell du Preez and Wimpie van der Walt. Marcel Coetzee was excellent last year and let’s not forget the find of last season, Francois Louw, who established himself in the Bok side on the November tour.
The second row has been an area of some concern to Meyer since taking the Bok job. Andries Bekker has been excellent for the Stormers but he’s unavailable, Juandré Kruger is still around, but heading to France soon, while Eben Etzebeth has just returned from injury. The young Stormers man should walk into the Bok team, but who’ll partner him? Flip van der Merwe has been okay, and so, too, Franco van der Merwe while Pieter-Steph du Toit has been outstanding in his first full season of Super Rugby. Lodewyk de Jager of the Cheetahs could be the bolter in the squad next month.
South African rugby is fairly well stocked in this department so Meyer shouldn’t have too many issues. Jannie du Plessis was outstanding last season at tighthead and should be the first choice, but in Frans Malherbe, Wiehan Herbst and Kevin Buys there is good back-up. Also, Coenie Oosthuizen can play both sides of the scrum meaning he will come into the reckoning, as will his Cheetahs teammates Trevor Nyakane and Lourens Adriaanse. Steven Kitshoff of the Stormers could also get his first taste of the Boks, while Pat Cilliers will feel he deserves another chance at a higher level. Tendai Mtawarira remains first-choice loosehead, if he can prove he’s over a calf injury, and let’s also not forget there are tons of SA props doing the rounds overseas.
With Bismarck du Plessis still making his way back after a lengthy injury, Adriaan Strauss will be the hooker. Chiliboy Ralepelle will serve as his deputy and then a fairly short list of other, relatively inexperienced No2s could make the squad. Kyle Cooper has made the most progress this season and Bandise Maku has been steady, but outside them there’s not much to pick from. Tiaan Liebenberg is injured so one wonders whether Meyer will look abroad and go for Schalk Brits?
Probable Bok team to face Italy in Durban on June 8: Kirchner, Pietersen, De Jongh, De Villiers, Habana, Steyn, Vermaak, Spies, Alberts, Kolisi, Kruger, Etzebeth, Du Plessis, Strauss, Mtawarira. Replacements: Ralepelle, Oosthuizen, Du Toit, Coetzee, Hougaard, Lambie, Rhule – The Star