Nelspruit - A lock crisis – really? You had better believe it. Well, that’s what Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer thought this time last year, but 12 months on and the future of the Bok second row looks far brighter than it once did.
The return to the game at the start of this season of veteran Victor Matfield, and Bakkies Botha again being available for the national team means Meyer no longer has sleepless nights when he has to mull over the lock situation in South Africa. In fact, unlike last year and in 2012, there is now genuine depth in the second row and, according to Meyer, South Africa will have a plethora of world class second rows to pick from in future.
It wasn’t the case after the 2011 World Cup, though. Matfield retiring and Botha and Danie Rossouw heading abroad left a huge hole to fill, while Andries Bekker suffered with injuries and later decided his future lay in Japan.
Meyer was so concerned about the state of the locks he talked Matfield into coming out of retirement, while Botha has featured in the national squad on two occasions – in November for the Bok tour of Europe and again now, in the June Tests. The veterans’ return to the Bok set-up has certainly eased the pressure on Meyer and the youngsters coming through the system. Long-term injuries to promising players, like Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit, made Meyer realise he needed to create greater depth in the second row.
“There will always be criticism when you bring back experienced players, but there’s a reason behind it. Having Bakkies and Victor in the squad has got a lot to do with long- term planning,” explained Meyer this week.
“Injuries will always be part of the game and it’s highly likely you’ll never have your top four locks available at the same time, so we need to build the next tier of players for the future. The injuries suffered by Andries, Pieter-Steph and Eben necessitated bringing in Victor and Bakkies.
“The fact is we have to find the best four locks to take to the World Cup ... without looking at age. If you take Victor and Bakkies away you’re left with very young players, men like Eben and Pieter-Steph. The other issue, of course, is that the majority of locks in South Africa are big, strong No 4s ... who’re very much like the blindside flank, powerful ball-carriers. Even Willem Alberts and Teboho Mohoje can be used at No 4. So we’re well stocked at No 4; it’s still No 5 that’s a bit of a concern ... a player who can run the line-out and win the kick-offs and that’s why Victor came back.”
Meyer said getting a player like Lood de Jager into the Bok set-up was crucial for his development. “He’s a No 4, but we’d like to convert him into a No 5 lock ... and he’ll learn a lot from Victor by being in camp with us. Even Pieter-Steph can learn a lot from Victor, it’s a pity he’s injured because it would have been great having both Victor and Pieter-Steph in the squad at the same time.
“I believe Pieter-Steph and Eben can go on and play 100 Tests for South Africa, but we still need to consider the next tier. At least things are looking better than they did a year ago.”
The other lock options are Juandré Kruger, who’s now based in France, Franco van der Merwe, who’s been injured and is headed to Ireland, while Flip van der Merwe has shown he can play at both No 4 and No 5. Stephan Lewies has made great strides at the Sharks, while Paul Willemse of the Bulls has also grown immensely in the last year and both could push for selection in years to come.
Meyer is also excited about the Junior Boks’ second row pairing of Nico Janse van Rensburg and JD Schickerling, while Bulls U-19 player RG Snyman has for some time been earmarked as a future star.
“There are going to be so many options for the coach in a few years; it’s really looking great,” enthused Meyer. He added, though, a player like Matfield had to be used in future to help develop South Africa’s next generation of line-out men.
“He’s world class, we all know that and it would make sense to get him to help bring on the youngsters,” said Meyer. “We need a system in this country where the ex-players can contribute and make a difference. There’s just so much to be gained from former players so hopefully we’ll see these great youngsters learning from the very best in years to come.”