Cape Town – The tour of Wales, Scotland and France which kicks off in Cardiff next Saturday should see exciting Cheetahs utility back Willie le Roux make the final shift to the designation that Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer always intended for him – that of super-sub.
Le Roux has started every Test since being selected into the Springbok team for the first time in the opening match of the year against Italy in Durban, and fared better than many may have anticipated.
When used as a fullback, Le Roux was the catalyst that unlocked the attacking potential of a backline which had looked impotent last year.
And he again showed good touches as a runner and handler of the ball once switched to the wing for the bigger games against New Zealand and Australia.
But the fact that Meyer did move him from the last line of defence was an indication that Le Roux hadn’t completely won him over, and Le Roux was one of the players who made glaring defensive errors in the recent defeat to the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship decider in Joburg.
With JP Pietersen released by his Japanese club to play on this tour, and Bryan Habana pronounced fit over the hamstring injury that forced him off at Ellis Park four weeks ago, the door appears to be closing on Le Roux as a potential member of the starting team.
Meyer has given a strong indication that he intends starting with Pietersen on the wing, and in northern hemisphere conditions he is unlikely to deviate from the solid as a house Zane Kirchner as his fullback.
That leaves the super-sub position open, although even that could close if Meyer does not intend selecting the returning Jaque Fourie straight back into his old position of outside centre.
There has been speculation that Meyer might well be prepared to start with Fourie straight away, but the wise approach would be the one he adopted when Fourie du Preez returned earlier this year, which would mean easing him back off the bench.
If Fourie does play off the bench, would there be space for Le Roux given that Patrick Lambie would be the likely flyhalf back-up and he also covers fullback?
So given that the Boks do tend to become more conservative because of the conditions on northern hemisphere tours, it could well be that Le Roux ends up playing a far less prominent role for the Boks than he has up to now.
It remains to be seen whether Meyer will be prepared to be bold and mix and match his selections a bit for the middle game against Scotland in Edinburgh.
Murrayfield has been a scene of ambush for the Boks in recent times and no Bok coach wants to be remembered for losing to Scotland, but that is a game that the South Africans should be able to get away with a bit of experimentation.
If there is a time for Le Roux to be given the chance to thumb his nose at the theory that he is not suited to northern conditions, the Murrayfield match could well be it, and it is surely also the ideal opportunity for Lambie to get the feel again of the No 10 jersey he wore on the last end-of-year tour.
However, Meyer’s policy to date has been to select his best team for every Test for the purpose of building up winning momentum, and while he does have half an eye on the 2015 World Cup, he will probably again focus on the here and now.
That is a pity, for there is a strong argument for him using parts of this tour to look at other options and thus grow his depth as protection against future injuries.
Talking of injuries, an injury might this week have unwittingly conspired in favour of the Springbok long-term ambitions.
Jannie du Plessis has been a fixture at tighthead prop since Meyer took over as national coach, and that enabled Meyer to get on with the business of converting Coenie Oosthuizen into a tighthead in the less stressful environment granted a player who plays off the bench.
Assuming that Oosthuizen will be pressed by Du Plessis’s absence into starting, this is when we will see whether the Free Stater really has it in him to pack down on the right hand side of the scrum at the highest level.
Past November tours have proved turning points when it comes to the front-row planning, such as in 2009 when matches against France and Italy finally decided the then coach Peter de Villiers against the John Smit tighthead experiment.
Lourens Adriaanse has been called up as Jannie’s replacement and has looked the business at lower levels and could profit from getting an opportunity if Oosthuizen is shown up.
And Frans Malherbe is a young player with awesome potential that could well be fulfilled by the time the World Cup arrives two years from now.
Whatever proves the case, the fact that Meyer has been forced to go outside his comfort zone in the front-row, as indeed he was this time last year at loosehead because of Beast Mtawarira’s heart palpitations, may be a good thing for the Boks if you take the long term view.
Some of the extra players added to the squad this week who many people are making a fuss about – Scarra Ntubeni, Louis Schreuder and Gio Aplon – will probably not feature in the match-day squads at all, and it is also unlikely that returning veteran Bakkies Botha, now 34, will be more than a bench player.
What will be interesting, though, will be to see how long it takes Meyer to introduce the Sharks’s Currie Cup final hero, Pieter-Steph du Toit.
The smart money should be on Flip van der Merwe starting in the No 5 jersey against European champions Wales next Saturday, with Du Toit playing off the bench, but in the view of many the sooner the coach pairs up the young second row duo of Eben Etzebeth and Du Toit so much the better for the South African World Cup hopes.
Gio Aplon, Zane Kirchner, Willie le Roux, JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana, Jaque Fourie, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Jean de Villiers (captain), Morne Steyn, Patrick Lambie, Johan Goosen, Fourie du Preez, Ruan Pienaar, Louis Schreuder, Duane Vermeulen, Marcell Coetzee, Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Flip van der Merwe, Bakkies Botha, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Lourens Adriaanse, Coenie Oosthuizen, Tendai Mtawaria, Gurthro Steenkamp, Bismarck du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss, Scarra Ntubeni.
Sat Nov 9: v Wales, Cardiff
Sun Nov 17: v Scotland, Edinburgh
Sat Nov 23: v France, Paris