Durban - Heyneke Meyer was only half joking when he said the old firm of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha could be the starting locks for the upcoming June series, with the venerable Matfield quite likely the captain.
“When I took over as coach (in 2012) I laughingly said that they might one day make a reappearance. Well, given our injuries at lock, stranger things have happened in rugby!” Meyer said.
He was talking after his 36-man training squad had been put through their places at Northwood Boys High on Monday afternoon.
A non-participant was key lock Eben Etzebeth, and there is growing concern that he is some way from full fitness. Sharks centre Frans Steyn is another concern after having returned from New Zealand with a knee injury.
But it is the captaincy issue that has left Meyer reeling.
“The loss of Jean de Villiers (for eight weeks) came out of the blue,” Meyer said.
“It is a huge setback. Jean is an unbelievable human being and captain, and was the SA player of the year last year. His loss is unexpected, and I am still getting over it.”
In terms of a successor, Meyer said he had “still not nailed it”, but he strongly hinted that he would look for an experienced veteran to hold the reins until the Stormers captain recovered, and Matfield would fit that bill.
“There are a number of options,” the coach said. “You could look at the future in the sense that Jean is probably going to stop after the World Cup (and pick a young captain), but in the other sense you can also go with other guys who have been there and hold the fort until Jean returns.”
That is clearly the route Meyer will go.
“When I took over as coach, I was not happy about the leadership, there was a lot of inexperience. But now you sit with Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss as respected Super Rugby captains, you have Victor who has captained in 17 Tests, plus Francois Louw has been an awesome captain with Bath.
“Schalk Burger has always been a good captain, and Duane Vermuelen has shown leadership with the Stormers.”
Meyer said that whoever he chose, it would have to be a player who fit in with the “green-and-gold” culture he had instilled.
“I believe we have to get the right guy to fit into the values and the culture of the team, and Jean is going to come back, so we don’t want to change too much,” Meyer said.
“We have the culture right, guys want to put their bodies on the line, the ethos is sound - they really want to play for their country.”
And Matfield ticks all the boxes.
Meyer was asked why he simply did not promote the incumbent vice-captain, Bismarck du Plessis.
His answer cryptically suggested that he still needs to get to know Du Plessis’s captaincy style.
“You need to consult with the leader and identify somebody who knows exactly what you want on the field. In the beginning, I was worried about Jean, but in the end he was brilliant and every call of his in a game is what I want.”
The spotlight increasingly seems to be shifting towards Matfield, who would follow the orders of his old Bulls coach explicitly.
“The one thing I have learned as Bok coach is that you don’t think too much into the future. I have never been so well prepared, this is the most planning I have ever done.
“But on day one of this camp, three or four players, including the captain, are suddenly out. You can’t think too much down the line, and you have to make changes that will keep the team on track and not have to reinvent itself.”