Cape Town - Heyneke Meyer is probably a bit worried at the moment. While his Springbok team had a good 2013 season – their two defeats in 12 Tests both came against the world champion All Blacks - he only has 18 games left to find the right combinations and build momentum before the Rugby World Cup starts in England next September.
And while the team he picked for Saturday’s non-cap international against the World XV at Newlands has a first-choice look about it, there are still several unanswered questions that Meyer would be pondering.
Who is the best flyhalf? What is the perfect centre combination? What about the loose trio?
Morné Steyn just has his nose in front in the race for the No 10 jersey, but Meyer is a known admirer of Johan Goosen. And this week, he threw the name of Junior Springbok captain Handré Pollard into the mix as well. Then Pat Lambie still has to come back from injury, not to mention Lions super-kicker Marnitz Boshoff.
Meyer admitted that he wanted to start Goosen at Newlands, but the injury to captain Jean de Villiers scuppered those plans. But the Cheetahs pivot will get a good chunk of the second half to show his class - which he undoubtedly has in abundance, but seldom displays as he is still too inconsistent to secure a Bok starting spot.
He has a greater range and skill-set than Steyn, but the former Bulls machine has seen and done it all before. “Johan was very close to selection. I want to give him enough playing time, and probably a week ago I felt he was the guy I want to go with. But suddenly Frans hasn’t played for us for some time, the centres got injured and I had to change my mind,” Meyer said.
“With Jean there, a guy like Damian (de Allende) would’ve probably got a run, and I would’ve gone with Goosen as he would’ve had the captain next to him. So I just felt that we needed some sort of stability there against a strong team.
“I will say this as well - a guy like Handré Pollard is very close to the side. He’s doing well there overseas and I’ve known him since he was 16 and have followed him closely. So, the race is open for 10 and it’s up to these players to put up their hands and show who’s the best.”
Frans Steyn teams up with JP Pietersen at centre due to the injury-enforced absence of De Villiers and Jaque Fourie, but what will happen when the latter duo return? The Bok coach said this week he “still believes” that inside centre is Steyn’s best position, which saw De Villiers line up at No 13 when they have both been fit. Fourie is out for around six months, but should be back for the end-of-year tour, and would be wasted on the bench.
Of course, Frans Steyn can always be an outside bet at flyhalf, or even fullback if needed.
Meyer described on Saturday’s encounter as “almost the toughest game of the season to start with”, and he is right, as his inside backs will be seriously tested at Newlands. Matt Giteau is captaining the World XV from flyhalf and comes off a double trophy-winning campaign with French club Toulon.
The skilful Giteau has given the Boks the runaround before, and as coach Nick Mallett noted on Thursday, the 92-cap Wallaby “is a hell of a competitive guy, he hates ever doing badly and that’s a good thing as it’s going to be very tough on Saturday”.
Pietersen and Frans Steyn come up against Wynand Olivier and Rene Ranger, who may not be among the best in the business, but are experienced and won’t give way. And don’t forget a back-three of James O’Connor, Drew Mitchell and Hosea Gear.
While the Boks have a settled tight-five - although Jannie du Plessis either needs a long break or must rediscover his spark, as the likes of Coenie Oosthuizen, Marcel van der Merwe and Frans Malherbe are starting to knock hard on the tighthead door - the loose trio, while big and physical, probably lack that speed of the All Blacks combination of Liam Messam, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read.
Francois Louw, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen were outstanding last year, but the Boks still came up short against New Zealand. So perhaps the missing piece in the puzzle is Schalk Burger, who only returned to the game from injury and illness this year.
Burger is on the bench on Saturday, and has the physicality, speed and finesse in his game to complement “bruisers” such as Vermeulen and Alberts. You could argue that a loose trio can’t accommodate two of the same players, so the best-balanced combination could be Louw, Burger and Vermeulen.
All four big men will have to deal with Georgian tough guy Mamuka Gorgodze, who plays for Montpellier in France, while English openside flank Steffon Armitage from Toulon was voted as the European Player of the Year recently.
Meyer said the Boks are in a lose-lose situation as fans expect them to “smash the guys by 50 points every time”. They should win, due to likely set-piece superiority, but the strength of the World XV may result in a few bloodied noses.
Teams for Newlands:
Springboks: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Victor Matfield (captain), 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Bench: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Flip van der Merwe, 20 Schalk Burger, 21 Fourie du Preez, 22 Johan Goosen, 23 Lwazi Mvovo.
World XV: 15 James O’Connor, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Matt Giteau (captain), 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 Mamuka Gorgodze, 5 Alistair Hargreaves, 4 Juandré Kruger, 3 Carl Hayman, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Sona Taumalolo.
Bench: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Schalk Ferreira, 18 Pat Cilliers, 19 Joe Tekori, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Jimmy Cowan, 22 Francois Trinh-Duc, 23 Benson Stanley.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland).
TV: M-Net/SS1/SS HD1.