After the scare in Mendoza, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is playing it safe at a venue that historically favours the Wallabies.
It is never a surprise when Springbok teams adopt a conservative approach and Heyneke Meyer’s selection for Saturday’s Test in Brisbane is a familiar reversion to type. The five changes from the side that struggled to subdue Argentina in Mendoza a fortnight ago are aimed at shoring up defensive frailties exposed that day.
Those who cherish the free spirit that is Willie le Roux will be hoping that his shift from fullback to right wing is not the first step in removing him from the starting side. Le Roux struggled under the high ball against the Pumas but was not alone in that.
Meyer has reverted to the safer but more prosaic Zane Kirchner at 15, expecting a fusillade from Wallaby halfbacks Will Genia and Quade Cooper. Le Roux takes the place of Bjorn Basson, who drops out of the squad altogether.
When Basson first moved from the Griquas to the Bulls three seasons ago, he seemed set for a long run in the national side but a lack of discipline in defensive situations has found him out. Going forward, Basson has few peers, leaping like a salmon to collect well-placed kicks but he has feet of clay when receiving similar kicks inside his own 22.
That, coupled with a propensity to step out of alignment in the search for interceptions, has persuaded Meyer to drop him. Basson now finds himself at a crossroads and we will learn much about his character because, for the first time in his life, it has been borne in upon him that his extraordinary attacking ability is not enough. Basson is the victim of a strong period in Springbok history but, if there is one area of concern for the future, it is at lock.
Meyer has been playing musical chairs with Juandré Kruger and Flip van der Merwe and this time it is the latter’s turn to start alongside Eben Etzebeth. The bald fact of the matter is that neither is good enough to be a long-term foil for Etzebeth. Injuries permitting, the post-season tour to the northern hemisphere should be the stage to introduce Sharks prodigy Pieter-Steph du Toit to Test match rugby.
However, there is no lack of quality at hooker and the day has finally arrived when Bismarck du Plessis returns to the starting line-up, a year after sustaining a serious injury that seemed, at one stage, to have ended a remarkable career. Du Plessis’s presence is a conscious attempt by Meyer to improve the Boks’ effectiveness at the breakdown. His ability to rip the ball from opponents while staying on his feet has trumped the superior scrumming of Adriaan Strauss. The latter would almost certainly start for every other side in international rugby, underlining the embarrassment of riches available to Meyer in certain positions.
Australia may be at a low ebb right now but they remain convinced of the need for a genuine fetcher. Coach Ewan McKenzie has inherited a side that battles in the set pieces but still has the ability to steal ball at the breakdowns. It is too simplistic to suggest that, on Saturday, one team will try to impose structure and the other will adopt chaos theory, but it contains a grain of truth.
The superior pace of the Australian forwards will be an area of concern for Meyer, whose back row in particular lacks a flyer. That will be less problematic if the front row of the Du Plessis brothers and Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira is allowed to perform but history tells us that outgunned Wallaby scrums find a way to charm the referee.
McKenzie will be hoping that his halfbacks are given more room to manoeuvre than they were against the All Blacks. The Wallabies were well beaten in both Bledisloe Cup matches, with the normally serene Genia looking more like a cat on a hot tin roof, unable to compensate for the purposelessness of Cooper outside him. Cooper’s recall was intended to bring a fresh dynamic to the back line but, shorn of confidence, he kicked possession away rather poorly.
The record books favour Australia, who have won all seven encounters with the Boks at Saturday’s venue, Suncorp Stadium. The two wins racked up by South Africa in Brisbane are relics of the days when the Wallabies were a second-division side in southern hemisphere terms, in 1956 and 1971. Several teams have left these shores confident of winning in Brisbane since South Africa emerged from isolation in 1992, and all have been rebuffed. It is, therefore, an important staging post in the growth of the side under Meyer.
It is not ideal that several of the team have flown to France and back in the days since the side underperformed in Mendoza but it provides a glimpse of the future. The peregrination of professional players is a nettle the International Rugby Board has to grasp sooner rather than later. Careers are contracting due to the increased fixture list and the IRB has to make a stand now, before the interests of club before country assume the farcical proportions prevalent in soccer.