Having opted to leave specialists on the bench or out of the match-day 23 completely, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer will be hoping his selections work in his favour when the Boks face Ireland tomorrow.
While Meyer explained in detail the reasons for picking who he has for tomorrow’s Test at the Aviva Stadium, one cannot help but wonder why the likes of South Africa’s form centre, Juan de Jongh, is on the bench, why a retreaded scrumhalf and out-of-form Francois Hougaard continues to play on the wing, why Elton Jantjies has been overlooked when he was on the bench the last time the Boks played, and how Schalk Brits can all of a sudden be the second-choice hooker ahead of the equally talented Chiliboy Ralepelle?
It is these selections among the backs – at flyhalf, outside centre and wing – and Brits on the bench that hold the key to the Bok performance in the opening match of the tour.
It is all good and well to have “an insurance policy”, as Meyer called it, in Morné Steyn on the bench, but one’s got to wonder what Jantjies did to be overlooked for this match, and why the coach doesn’t have confidence in him to kick a last-gasp penalty, if it comes to that.
Yes, Pat Lambie’s been in good form – and Meyer wants to have a look at him – but one’s got to feel for Jantjies.
And in midfield, De Jongh is arguably the form centre in the country and is as steady and reliable an operator as one can find, yet he’s not being given a chance alongside provincial teammate Jean de Villiers.
Hougaard’s battled to settle this season and hasn’t shown the kind of form he produced in 2010 and 2011, and is a very fortunate man to still be in the side. Tomorrow’s Test could very well be his last for some time should he not produce the goods.
There are specialists waiting for a chance at wing, men like Lwazi Mvovo, Raymond Rhule – and yes, he’s old enough, because he’s good enough – and even Lionel Mapoe on this tour. They are all players who’ve shown good form in the last few months.
The only department Meyer can really feel confident and assured about is his pack – “it was easier to pick a pack than the backs, because they’re established now”, and it will, indeed, be up to these men to lay the foundation for the Bok performance tomorrow.
They are a settled group, with Juandré Kruger coming in for the injured Andries Bekker not weakening the side ... so if there’s one area where Meyer deserves plenty of credit, it is his forwards. He may still be experimenting and checking all his options at the back, but he’s got his picks correct up front.
The Bok front row has scrummed well, and the locks have also made their mark – players all-round who’ve generally picked themselves, but it’s at loose trio where Meyer deserves credit. He tried the likes of Keegan Daniel and Jacques Potgieter, and in the absence of Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Ryan Kankowski, Pierre Spies and even Heinrich Brüssow, it was always going to be a challenge to find the right blend in the back row.
The selection of Francois Louw was brilliant, and when Duane Vermeulen became available, things finally fell into place.
It’s a somewhat broken, experimental Bok team, with several players in the mix because of varying reasons – size (Taute), form (Lambie), perceived X-factor (Hougaard and Brits) and “reliability” (Steyn) – but they’re all going to have to function strongly as a unit, and play as well as they’ve played all year to beat Ireland.
There may not be too much interest in this November tour, but if the Boks lose tomorrow, there will be plenty of interest in what Meyer does in the next two matches, against Scotland and England.
Meanwhile, AFP reports that South Africa-born Richardt Strauss will make his Ireland debut against the Boks.
It means one family will be providing both hookers for this weekend’s match at Lansdowne Road, with the 26-year-old Strauss’s cousin, Adriaan, starting in the Springboks’ No 2 shirt.
Richardt Strauss, who plays his club rugby for European champions Leinster, qualified for Ireland after completing a three-year residency period.
He arrived in Ireland as a 23-year-old, having been a member of the South Africa team that won the Under-19 World Cup in 2005. An injury to Rory Best has now given the Pretoria-born former Cheetahs forward his chance.
Ireland: 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Gordon D’Arcy, 11 Andrew Trimble, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip (capt), 7 Chris Henry, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Donnacha Ryan, 4 Mike McCarthy, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Cian Healy. Bench: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 David Kilcoyne, 18 Michael Bent, 19 Donncha O’Callaghan, 20 Iain Henderson, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ronan O’Gara, 23 Fergus McFadden.
South Africa: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jaco Taute, 12 Jean de Villiers (capt), 11 Francois Hougaard, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Tendai Mtawarira. Bench: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 CJ van der Linde, 18 Pat Cilliers, 19 Flip van der Merwe, 20 Marcell Coetzee, 21 Morné Steyn, 22 Juan de Jongh, 23 Lwazi Mvovo.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).
Kickoff: 7.30pm (SA time).
TV: Live on SS1.