Cape Town – Heyneke Meyer did well to address some nagging doubts this season, but the Springbok coach will look to answer several searching questions when Italy, Scotland and possibly Samoa arrive in June next year.
The Boks climbed two places in the world rankings during Meyer’s first season, losing three of 12 Tests to finish second only to the rampant All Blacks.
It’s an impressive record considering the mammoth rebuilding task that faced whoever came in after Peter de Villiers, and it’s made all the more remarkable considering that 11 of the 20 most experienced players ever to represent South Africa were unavailable due to injury, overseas club duty or retirement at the end of last year.
In 2013, Meyer must begin to close the gap on New Zealand, and addressing primary concerns during Super Rugby’s June break will be vital in this regard.
Bismarck du Plessis:
The established first-choice hooker in the country, he was always going to be central to any plans for the future in the wake of John Smit’s retirement.
Meyer will have lost some colour in his face when the Sharks hooker went down with a season-ending knee injury five minutes into the Rugby Championship-opener at Newlands, but Adriaan Strauss answered the call, and then some.
The Cheetahs rake took a little time to warm up, but he finished the season in rampaging form. Meyer will no doubt use Strauss as a cattle-prodder to get the most out of fit-again Du Plessis in every Test going forward.
Juandré Kruger: To a lesser degree, Kruger proved that there is indeed life after Victor Matfield (retired) and Andries Bekker (injured).
The Bulls lock is no world-beater, but he’s a hard-working overachiever with a real hunger to play for the Boks.
He will also push Bekker for a starting berth and challenge the Stormers jumper for the important responsibility of managing South Africa’s lineout.
Eben Etzebeth: While not quite the adamantine enforcer that Bakkies Botha was, he nonetheless convinced rival teams that the Boks have a wild-eyed lunatic, intent on relieving them of the use of their limbs.
Francois Louw: The influence of Stormers defence expert Jacques Nienaber was a saving grace for Meyer’s team this year. The Super 15 loose forward combination of Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen added the finishing touches to the Bok defensive wall.
Recalled from English club side Bath, former Stormers fetcher Louw and Currie Cup-winning No 8 Vermeulen tag-teamed any and all ball-carriers who were foolish enough to wander into their precinct.
Zane Kirchner: Much-maligned, the Bulls fullback emerged the unsung hero of the season. Weekend-warriors chastised him for “not attacking enough”, but it was Kirchner’s bankable return kicks, kick-receipt and even his kick-chase that kept South Africa at the right end of the field.
Tighthead prop: Jannie du Plessis was duly praised for his resilience this year, but he is – at best – an adequate scrummager and the Boks desperately need a cornerstone tighthead if they are to challenge New Zealand at the set piece.
World-class tightheads don’t grow on trees, but Meyer missed a trick when he overlooked Munster’s No 3 during the tour of Europe.
BJ Botha, 32, may subtract from the sum as a negligible ball-carrier and a vertically-challenged lifter at the lineout (1.82m tall), but he’s an immoveable object at scrum-time.
The Bok coach is holding thumbs that Coenie Oosthuizen makes a full recovery from injury to continue his recalibration as a tighthead prop.
Scrumhalf: It was by default that Ruan Pienaar succeeded World Cup-winning Fourie du Preez (playing in Japan) this year.
Kamikaze halfback Francois Hougaard crashed out of contention when it became clear his kicking game wasn’t up to scratch and the Boks made stop-start progress as a result of Pienaar’s inconsistent play.
Hougaard’s plea to be viewed as a specialist No 9 should be heeded and though it may be far too early to enter his name into the debate, young Sharks halfback Cobus Reinach has all the physical attributes required of a Test scrumhalf.
Flyhalf: As expected, flashy Pat Lambie failed to launch in the Test arena.
His whimsical style of play may go down well at King’s Park – where the powerful Sharks pack offers momentum on tap – but the Boks need a No 10 who doesn’t waft in and out of the game.
Morné Steyn remains the best option to start until Johan Goosen can match him in the territory game, or until a youngster like Bulls pivot Louis Fouche steps up.
Centre: Jaque Fourie isn’t coming back from Japanese club duty any time soon and Meyer consequently needs to find a big-bodied challenger to pull Frans Steyn out of his comfort zone.
Juan de Jongh was largely anonymous on the year-end tour and that’s because his skill-set isn’t suited to the Boks’ blueprint.
If heart was measured in kilograms De Jongh would be an ideal option. However, listed at a generous 88 kilograms, the elusive Stormers centre isn’t going to give Steyn any sleepless nights.
Rookie Jaco Taute is too raw to meet the defensive requirements at outside centre, but perhaps the return to fitness and form of Bulls flyer Bjorn Basson could see JP Pietersen – in red-hot form this year – line up in the midfield, outside of skipper Jean de Villiers. – Cape Argus