Has Meyer lost his marbles?
With the Super Rugby season on hold, it’s time to play every South African rugby fan’s favourite game: “Has the Springbok coach gone mad?” All together now:
- Heinrich Brüssow isn’t even in the squad (has the Springbok coach gone mad?);
- But Wynand Olivier is (has the Springbok coach gone mad?);
- He’s picked Jean de Villiers at 13 instead of 12 (has the Springbok coach gone mad?);
- Pat Lambie isn’t in the starting 15 (has the Springbok coach gone mad?);
- But Zane Kirchner is (has the Springbok coach gone mad?).
And so on.
Heyneke Meyer had an extremely successful career coaching at provincial and club level. He lived by the old saying that if you fail to prepare, then you prepare to fail. But one thing he will surely not be prepared for is the level of anger that will be directed at him now that he is the Springbok coach.
He got a taste of it last week when his squad of 32 contained just three players from the Stormers, the best South African side on display this year in Super Rugby.
The fact that all three made it into the starting 15 for the first Test against England will go some way towards mollifying a few critics. For the record, there are five Bulls in the run-on team and seven Sharks, if you include Frans Steyn, who will rejoin his old team in July. Given the relative log positions of the three franchises, it might indeed seem that the coach has placed the wrong end of the telescope against his eye.
So the question remains germane: Has the Springbok coach gone mad? He’s certainly made some odd selections and he made a rod for his own back over the captaincy issue. It seems certain that, in an ideal world, Meyer would have begun his tenure with Victor Matfield in the captain’s armband and Fourie du Preez at scrumhalf. Patent madness.
Instead, the great Jean de Villiers becomes Springbok captain number 54, but he has been selected out of position and only inherited the captaincy when Du Preez turned down the job last week. He could, and should, have been invested with the captaincy when the squad of 32 was announced, and he more than anyone will know that his 31-year-old legs do not have sufficient pace to act as a replacement for the unavailable Jaque Fourie at outside centre.
The pack looks like a work in progress. The Sharks front row will not let anyone down and the uncapped lock pairing of Juandré Kruger and Eben Etzebeth deserves time to develop a rapport. But the back row looks like the famous camel that emerged when a committee tried to design a horse.
Willem Alberts has spent much of the season either injured or out of favour with Sharks coach John Plumtree. His time in the Springbok ranks has been spent mainly as a second-half impact player from the bench, but Meyer has put his faith in the big man as a starter. His unenviable job will be to carry the ball into contact, to create platforms for phase play.
But Alberts is a long way short of the irresistible force of two seasons ago and it might be argued that he is a one-trick pony whose trick has been exposed. Pierre Spies is a more nuanced player, but it is hard to remember him dominating a Test match. Spies is a remarkable physical specimen with a blinding turn of speed, but he is not a natural ball player and the eighth man needs to be able to think outside the box.
It is precisely because a player such as Spies seems to get picked despite everything that the gifted Ashley Johnson has chosen to pursue his career overseas. Johnson was overlooked in favour of Francois Louw for last year’s World Cup and he has clearly had enough.
A big but
The third member of the loose trio is the young Sharks flanker Marcel Coetzee. He may well become a fixture in Springbok sides for many years to come, but – and it is a big but – with Alberts on the crash ball and Spies expected to gallop, Coetzee will have to devote his time to winning the ball on the ground, which is not exactly what he does at the Sharks.
And if there genuinely is a need for a fetcher in the team, then the best man for the job in South Africa, and probably the world, remains Brüssow. Anticipating the criticism, Meyer said last week that the game had changed and that Brüssow was attracting penalties. He also pointed out that Bismarck du Plessis had become a fine auxiliary fetcher.
All of which may be true, but if the idea of team sport is to do the things that the opposition would least like, then England will be delighted that they do not have to contend with Brüssow at Kings Park. Nevertheless, Meyer has a team full of quality and a particularly strong and versatile bench. He should begin his tenure with a win, but it may be rather more scrappy and less one sided than Springbok supporters would wish.
1. Beast Mtawarira
2. Bismarck du Plessis
3. Jannie du Plessis
4. Eben Etzebeth
5. Juandré Kruger
6. Marcell Coetzee
7. Willem Alberts
8. Pierre Spies
9. Francois Hougaard
10. Morné Steyn
11. Bryan Habana
12. Frans Steyn
13. Jean de Villiers (captain)
14. JP Pietersen
15. Zane Kirchner
16. Adriaan Strauss
17. Coenie Oosthuizen
18. Flip van der Merwe
19. Keegan Daniel
20. Ruan Pienaar
21. Pat Lambie
22. Wynand Olivier