Who’ll pack down in the second row, and who will coach Heyneke Meyer pick in the midfield?
These are the two burning questions this week ahead of the Springboks’ opening Rugby Championship match against Argentina at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
Victor Matfield’s withdrawal from the squad last week means Meyer has to find a new lock pairing which is likely to be rookie Lood de Jager, and veteran Bakkies Botha. However, star youngster Eben Etzebeth is also back in the mix.
Etzebeth got some much-needed game time for Western Province in the Currie Cup on Friday night, but looked well off the pace and Meyer will be concerned that the specialist No4 lock isn’t quite up to match speed yet. One suspects Etzebeth will play off the bench in the two Tests against Argentina and then, hopefully, be ready to start against Australia and New Zealand.
The other option to Meyer, of course, is to pick recalled veteran Juan Smith in the second row – something the coach said was an option when he came back into the squad after nearly four years out of international rugby. Smith has always been an excellent back-of-the-line-out jumper and has shown good form for French club Toulon, but is he really a Test quality lock?
Regarding the midfield, Meyer will be desperate to see captain Jean de Villiers and Damian de Allende alongside each other, but both have only recently return-ed from long injury layoffs. De Villiers said last week he was “looking good” to be ready to lead his country again, but added he’d have a better idea of his fitness levels this week. De Allende appears to be ready to play again but, like Etzebeth, could be lacking in match fitness.
With both men almost certainly not at peak level, Meyer could easily opt to play De Villiers at outside centre and include Jan Serfontein at 12, a position he excelled in during the June Tests. All will be revealed in the comings days as the Boks step up their intensity for the clash against the South Americans.
There is also plenty of interest in the Bok front row, as well as at flyhalf. The Du Plessis brothers, Jannie and Bismarck, will be in their familiar positions, but the identity of the loosehead prop is far from certain. Tendai Mtawarira has struggled with injury in recent weeks and didn’t even finish the Super Rugby campaign, so he’ll have to prove he’s ready to go, with the other options being Trevor Nyakane and possibly even Frans Malherbe, who also turned out for WP last Friday.
At flyhalf, the man in the seat is Handré Pollard – who debuted against Scotland in the Boks’ last Test – but Morné Steyn wasn’t available because of club commitments so it’ll be interesting to see who Meyer backs to take on the Pumas. Pollard is certainly the man for the future, but Steyn is a proven match-winner.
On his home ground, Pollard should get the nod, irrespective of who’s on his inside and outside ... he’s a mature man for his 20 years and performed well enough in his first outing to suggest Meyer will give him an extended run in the No 10 jersey.
Probable team: Willie le Roux, Cornal Hendricks, Damian de Allende, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Handré Pollard, Ruan Pienaar, Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Lood de Jager, Bakkies Botha, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira - The Star