Johannesburg - The Springbok No7 jersey is up for grabs. With Willem Alberts again missing out because of a hamstring injury and Juan Smith making himself unavailable for the trip to Australasia, coach Heyneke Meyer is looking for a new blindside flanker.
And this just days before the Boks meet Australia in Perth in a Rugby Championship match (next Saturday, 12.05pm kick-off SA time).
Last year Alberts, Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen were one of the world’s leading back-row combinations, but persistent injuries to Alberts have left his coach with some big decisions to make this year.
In the first Rugby Championship Test of the year, at Loftus Versfeld, Marcell Coetzee filled in at No7, but last week he was replaced by Smith, who played his first Test in nearly four years.
Smith, however, has decided not to tour Down Under, feeling he isn’t in the right shape to play Test rugby, leaving Coetzee - one of the bench heroes from the Test in Salta a week ago - as the most likely man to come into the side.
But it’s not so clear cut.
Meyer basically picked Smith last week because he felt he needed a big ball-carrier and someone who could jump at the back of the line-out, so if he goes with the same sort of player for the Test against the Wallabies, then Coetzee is likely to miss out.
Returning lock Victor Matfield, who missed both matches against the Pumas because of injury, said on Friday Meyer had a big decision to make.
“Willem is a special player and was brilliant last year in combination with Duane and Francois, so he’s a big loss. But Oupa (Mohoje) is an option in the line-outs and Marcell showed what he can do last week in Salta.”
But, could there be a debut on the cards for Lions skipper Warren Whiteley, who joined the squad on Friday as a replacement for Alberts?
“Warren brings something different to the team. He’s been outstanding for the Lions this year, he’s a great leader and an energetic player. He also has a lot of pace and puts himself in good positions as a ball-carrier. He’ll be pushing for a place in the starting line-up,” said Matfield.
“It’s going to be interesting to see who the coach picks at No7 and who the (loose forward) replacement will be. I suppose it depends on whether we go with four jumpers or five... we’ll have to see what Heyneke decides.”
Meyer was very impressed by Whiteley in Argentina last week and he spoke highly of the player again on Friday.
“Like Willem (Alberts), he is very effective with ball in hand and also a great option at the back of the line-out,” said Meyer. “More importantly, Warren is a natural No8, which is a position where we need cover, but he can play flank as well.”
Matfield said the Boks had spent a lot of time working on their scrums and line-outs, areas of their game that have wobbled badly over the last two weeks.
“The set-piece is very important for us but we’ve had a good look at it and the only way we can fix it is to work on the training field,” said the veteran lock.
“We mustn’t forget the guys who are there (in the front row). They have been outstanding last year and we know what they can do. It’s really one or two technical things we need to get right. But we know that if we want to win away from home, we need to have our set-piece working for us.”
The Boks leave for Perth on Saturday.