Perth - Tiaan Liebenberg could make his first Test start for the Springboks, while coach Heyneke Meyer is strongly considering moving Francois Hougaard to wing and bringing Ruan Pienaar into the starting line-up at scrumhalf.
Hooker and current vice-captain Adriaan Strauss is battling with his knee ligament injury ahead of Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash against Australia at the Patersons Stadium, which will also double as a Nelson Mandela Challenge Plate game.
While Meyer is hopeful that the Cheetahs skipper would be able to play, he says that Strauss has a “50-50” chance. Team doctor Craig Roberts said at a media briefing at the team hotel on Monday that the 26-year-old will undergo a series of tests this week.
“Adriaan Strauss has a mild knee ligament strain. We will assess him again later in the week, and we will make a decision on his availability, depending on how he goes through training in the next couple of days. But apart from that, we’ve got a fit squad and are ready to go,” Roberts said.
“He needs to run tomorrow, and that will be the first step. There’s a step-wise programme that we run, and he needs to get through each day. The first day on Wednesday is the straight-line running, and if he is comfortable with that, we will progress him and make the call later in the week.”
Meyer tried to be positive about the situation, which would be a massive blow to the Boks’ chances of winning on Saturday as they are already missing Bismarck du Plessis and Chiliboy Ralepelle at No 2. “We’ve got a very good medical team, and I’m positive that we will get him through! I was very happy with Bissie and the way he progressed as a leader - I actually see him as a future Springbok captain as well. And then Adriaan is also a great leader who has just come through,” the Bok coach said.
“If you look at our pack, there are a lot of guys who hasn’t been in a leadership role, who hasn’t been the captain of their franchise or province. With Pierre (Spies) out as well, it would be a huge setback if Adriaan can’t play. But hopefully he will be fit. There is a 50-50 chance of him playing.”
But with a Stormers lock pairing of Eben Etzebeth and Andries Bekker, Liebenberg shouldn’t have too many problems throwing into the lineouts. It is rather about whether he can be as effective a ball-carrier as Du Plessis and Strauss, while he also needs to chip in at the breakdowns. Sharks back-up hooker Craig Burden will then come on to the bench.
“It would be a huge test for Tiaan, especially away from home. But I thought that he did well. I wanted to give him more gametime in the previous Test, but again, it was such a tight Test match, and Adriaan was the vice-captain.
“Tiaan is a guy I have a lot of trust in, and I want to give him more gametime this week,” Meyer said.
“It usually makes it easier (having franchise teammates), and Duane (Vermeulen) is a guy who is also close to (making) the team.
“So, those are three guys Tiaan is used to, and he has proven himself at Super Rugby level. His set pieces are good. This is a step up for him, but he is an experienced campaigner, and I am looking forward to seeing him play if he gets the chance.”
Hougaard has been under pressure at halfback as Meyer tries to turn him into a Fourie du Preez clone instead of letting him play his natural game. But after the disappointing 16-16 draw against Argentina in Mendoza, the Bok coach has finally changed his mindset by looking at Pienaar, who is better suited to the current gameplan, which places a huge emphasis on tactical kicking.
Hougaard revels in space, and he could make a big impact at left wing. Sharks star Lwazi Mvovo would be desperately unlucky to have to make way, though, as he has looked sharp every time he has had the ball in his hands.
“That (Hougaard at wing and Pienaar at scrumhalf) is an option. I always said that we have a horses-for-courses attitude, so we’ve studied Australia. They are a quality side, and Hougie gives you something different on the wing. We’ve got a lot of injuries there at the moment,” said the Bok mentor.
“Ruan’s a little more experienced, he’s got a brilliant kicking game, and he can give us more stability and take the pressure off Morne (Steyn). So, I won’t say that it’s a definite, but we are looking at that option as well.”
The Boks did not train yesterday, and only had a gym session, as a big storm brought heavy rain and strong winds to Perth. Bath loose forward Francois Louw eventually arrived from England on Monday, and he will want to impress Meyer in the first practice of the week on Tuesday.
Meyer said that he was toying with the idea of a 5-2 bench split, but was also weighing up whether to hand a Test debut to Cheetahs youngster Johan Goosen.