Still struggling with life after Matfield
The flyhalves will doubtless attract the most focus during the three-test tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland, but there is one other area of concern that Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer will give plenty of attention -- No 5 lock.
For the past few years the Boks have been spoilt for choice there. Victor Matfield, even when coming to the end of his illustrious career, was the best in the position, and Andries Bekker, when he was fit and in form, was a more than useful upstart who would have fronted the lineout of any other international team in the world.
Add to that the name of Johann Muller, who played at the last two World Cups, and one or two others, and South African rugby was well served. But that has changed, and the shadow of Matfield’s retirement has at times been noticeable during a year which started with Meyer trying to persuade his former Bulls captain to rethink his decision to call it a day.
Both the talented and intelligent Juandre Kruger and Bekker have had their moments leading the lineout, but Bekker has spent much of the season getting walking repairs and now, thanks the South African rugby mistake of allowing provinces to call on Boks at the end of the Currie Cup season, he is out of the tour.
With Muller also injured, that leaves a void to be filled, and being present at the Saru Player of the Year Awards at the Execujet hangar at Cape Town International Airport on Thursday night drummed home just what a big hole it is. Franco van der Merwe is a hard working player and that has been recognised by the Sharks, who have lured him to Durban for next year.
But he is not one of those tall, lanky players that you get used to seeing run the middle of an international lineout, and it prompted some journalists to ask Meyer at a press conference on Wednesday whether he would consider playing Eben Etzebeth at No 5, with Flip van der Merwe slotting in alongside him in a front of the lineout role.
MARCO ON STANDBY
Etzebeth did play a lot of his youth rugby as the athletic middle of the lineout man in the Matfield mould, so it was a fair question. But Meyer’s answer was equally sensible.
“Everyone knows I would love to have two guys who put in the graft, two hard workers playing together, but Eben has been brilliant this year playing where he is and the pair of them haven’t called lineouts together before,” said Meyer.
“As we were reminded in the recent Currie Cup final (where the Sharks lost because of their lineout), the lineouts have become very technical and extremely important. The bottom line is if you don’t get your lineout ball you are in trouble. Eben doesn’t have experience at the moment of calling the lineout, and I wouldn’t want to put extra pressure on him.
“Flip has more experience, but I think we need a No 5 lock managing the lineout. We have Juandre to do that but I have selected Franco as back-up as he does a good job in that regard with the Lions and he is also a hard working player who could do well in northern hemisphere conditions. But I do recognise that we are a bit short there at the moment. I would have considered Johann Muller, but he is also injured.”
Earlier in the year Meyer was backing young Sharks player Pieter-Steph du Toit as a potential future star, but he has yet to play regularly for his province and is often used as a blindside flank and not a lock. His time will surely come later on, but in the meantime Meyer is looking at potential back-up from a player who may surprise a lot of people.
Marco Wentzel went on just one tour with the Springboks back in 2002, but was quickly forgotten about after the disastrous defeat to Scotland that year. However, Wentzel has matured playing overseas for much of the past decade, and Meyer, in keeping with his pledge to keep an eye on the form of players playing club rugby in the northern hemisphere, has been impressed.
“I have asked Marco to be on standby for us, he has been quite brilliant in the lineouts for his club and I will take a look at him if it becomes necessary to do so,” said the Bok coach.
“One of the problems is that we have brought in Schalk Brits. Although he is 31 now, I seen Schalk as a potential impact player, but he has not thrown in to most of the players in the team, which would be another complication with playing Eben at No 5 and expecting him to call the lineout.”
For the time being though, with Kruger fit and no doubt eager to get stuck in after the short break afforded him by his Blue Bulls team’s early exit from the Currie Cup, Meyer doesn’t have to do anything drastic. It is only if Kruger is injured that he will find himself sweating in his quest to find a salve for a problem no-one would ever have imagined when Matfield was ruling the world in the lineouts and in fielding and contesting the kick-offs.
The Boks leave on their tour on Saturday night. They play Ireland in Dublin on 10 November, Scotland in Edinburgh on 17 November and complete their trip against England at Twickenham on 24 November.