The Boks of beyond
Heyneke Meyer has come to terms with choosing overseas players but otherwise he remains true to form.
A revolution is in the air. The first Springbok team of the season, announced on Wednesday, includes no less than eight players who are based overseas.
Another three – JP Pietersen, Schalk Burger and Johan Goosen – will be leaving these shores at the conclusion of the Super Rugby season. That means almost half of coach Heyneke Meyer’s 23-man squad are citizens of the world, which is rather fitting, as the first opposition of the Test year is the World XV, coached by Nick Mallett.
There will be times in the course of Saturday’s Test in Cape Town when it may be hard to distinguish one side from the other. Schalk Brits, for instance, was originally in the World XV squad, before a three-week ban made Adriaan Strauss unavailable for the Boks.
Juandré Kruger and Alistair Hargreaves were two players expected to fill the vacuum left by the retirement of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield. Now they will wear the colours of the World XV against the same two ageless giants.
For those with short memories, it was in 1996 that Francois Pienaar left South Africa to join the Saracens. He had been overlooked by coach André Markgraaff for the end-of-season tour to Argentina and Europe. Pienaar’s international career was over, 15 months after he had raised the Webb Ellis trophy as captain of the Springboks.
For the remainder of the 20th century, to play your rugby outside of South Africa meant turning your back on representing the national side. Players such as Jannie de Beer and Fritz van Heerden returned from overseas to play Currie Cup rugby, purely to make themselves available for the 1999 World Cup. How times have changed.
As late as last year, Meyer’s decision to use Japanese-based players was regarded as foolhardy; now it seems merely pragmatic. And, as for preferring experience to youth, well, this week’s Springboks are either massively experienced or simply old, depending on how you choose your adjectives.
The 37-year-old caretaker captain pushes up the average age, of course. Matfield was presented to the press on Tuesday as the stand-in for the injured Jean de Villiers.
There was an unexplained hiatus of three days between the naming of the Bok training squad and the naming of the captain. Perhaps not wishing to put needless pressure on De Villiers when he returns, Meyer was persuaded not to anoint his successor. It is believed that Francois Louw’s name came up in conversation but, while having 11 “foreigners” in the match-day 23 was acceptable, perhaps making one of them captain was a bridge too far.
But, ultimately, of course, Meyer’s team will rise or fall on ability, not postal codes. He has plumped for a pack filled with honest labourers, his inside backs are robust but the attacking flair is almost entirely based in the back three.
The one new cap, Cornal Hendricks, will not let anyone down. The Cheetahs wing deserves his call-up after an eye-catching season in a losing side. He is helped by having his team-mate, the maverick Willie le Roux, alongside him. He is helped also by having the great Bryan Habana on the other wing.
If you were looking for some insight into the coach’s thinking, the halfback combination speaks volumes. Morné Steyn did not retire after the World Cup in 2011, unlike Matfield, Botha and a few others. It had been assumed, however, that his move to France would in effect sever his ties with the national side. Instead, Steyn has become one of the cornerstones of Meyer’s teams.
Ruan Pienaar starts inside Steyn and Fourie du Preez is on the bench. What Meyer is saying is that the standard of halfback play by South African teams in Super Rugby has forced him to look further afield. He is not far wrong. None of the scrumhalves plying their trade locally is in the class of the above pair.
Equally, the injury to Pat Lambie has narrowed the field at flyhalf. Frans Steyn has been a mighty presence there for the Sharks but, with De Villiers out of the reckoning, Meyer needs Steyn at centre. It will be intriguing to see how much game time Johan Goosen receives, for he is one locally based player Meyer believes could be the real deal. It is an important month for the Cheetahs man, for he has been crippled by injury too often in his short career and will not have the benefit of Currie Cup rugby to stay in the shop window when he moves abroad later this year.
The one selection that seems plain wrong is that of Pietersen at outside centre. He has been in poor form for the Sharks on the wing and moving him closer to the action may be counterproductive. Even so, his glittering career has earned him the right to play his way back to form at the highest level.
There is a suspicion of sameness about the pack. The eight chosen are all big and strong, which pretty much sums up Meyer’s preferences for rugby players in general.
The romantics would like a bit of chilli in the mix but it’s hard to argue with the success Meyer has had with his front and back rows.
As for the second row, in years to come it may be a quiz question that everyone gets wrong: When did Victor and Bakkies play their last Test together? Not Wellington in 2011, but Newlands in 2014.