The Boks coach has instituted a subtle overhaul of the team, which should pay off in the World Cup.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is in the enviable position of being able to experiment as the Rugby Championship begins. Meyer has home and away fixtures against Argentina to test new combinations at centre and lock. He also has the luxury of sending Pat Lambie home to Durban to play for the Sharks in their Currie Cup fixture on Friday night.
Meyer’s low-key beginning is in sharp contrast to his counterparts, Steve Hansen and Ewen McKenzie, as the Wallabies face the All Blacks in Sydney in the early match on Saturday. Hansen has downplayed the significance of the game, but the entire New Zealand side is labouring with the intense pressure of 17 wins in a row. If they beat Australia on Saturday they will set a new mark for top-tier teams.
A year ago it would have seemed a veritable walk in the park for the visitors, as Australian rugby had imploded at both provincial and national level. Now, however, the Waratahs are the new Super Rugby champions and three of the other four franchises have had extended periods of significant achievement during the tournament.
Suddenly McKenzie has a pool of players from which to choose, instead of wading around in the shallows hoping to find a discarded lump of gold. Intriguingly enough, the coach has chosen the bad boy of Wallaby rugby to start the game at flyhalf. Kurtley Beale has been preferred there to his Waratahs teammate, Bernard Foley.
Foley was the flyhalf who kicked 23 points including the winning goal in the Super Rugby final against the Crusaders. The fact that he is on the bench appears to have more to do with player politics than tactics, however. The official line is that Beale’s unpredictable nature will be invaluable against the All Blacks. But the real reason is the looming 2015 World Cup.
Unlike South Africa, the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) contracts players directly. Beale, for all his alcohol and disciplinary problems, is regarded as a vital cog in the wheel for the Wallabies next year and, crucially, his contract with the Aru is up for renewal. Beale’s management team rebuffed the ARU’s advances during the season, saying they wanted their man to play Super Rugby without “distractions”.
Apparently they are angling for a one-year contract, which would allow their man to set an outrageous price on his post-2015 services should the Wallabies happen to do well at the World Cup.
There are times when the South African Rugby Union (Saru) fails to grasp the nettle in contractual issues, but it is inconceivable that their chief executive Jurie Roux would be as craven in attitude as Bill Pulver, his opposite number at the ARU.
This week Pulver was quoted as saying: “We’ll be patient ... Clearly Australian Rugby is very keen to keep him. He’s playing great rugby, he’s very good for the game, so I sincerely hope we do.
“At the end of the day the ball is in his court. He has to determine what is the right thing for him ... I’m not ringing him up saying, ‘Hey mate, are you going to sign?’ I want him to focus on winning the game on Saturday night.”
With an attitude like Pulver’s, the Aru is busy sowing the seeds of its own destruction. For all the issues that Meyer has had to deal with this year – the Frans Steyn debacle would top the list – at least he knows he can talk to his players directly, instead of having to mediate through an agent.
As it happens, Meyer also made the decision to bench his number one flyhalf this week. Morné Steyn is being asked to cover both flyhalf and fullback while Lambie gets some game time with the Sharks, and Handré Pollard does likewise with the national side.
It is part of Meyer’s subtle overhaul of the team that began last year and will reap major dividends at the World Cup.
It has been suggested that Steyn will be straight back into the starting team when the “proper” games begin, against New Zealand and Australia. But that presupposes that Pollard fails to take the opportunity that has been handed to him on a silver platter. Injuries notwithstanding, it could well be that in a fortnight’s time it will be practically impossible for Meyer to drop the 20-year-old prodigy.
That is less likely with the one new cap in the run-on team, Damian de Allende. The Stormers centre is the latest in a long line of players Meyer has tried in the number 13 jersey. Last year JJ Engelbrecht had the coach’s confidence, but this year the Bulls man is not even in the extended Springbok squad. JP Pietersen played there in the June tests, but is unavailable at the moment because of club commitments in Japan.
So it is possible that De Allende will step up as though to the manner born; possible, but unlikely. The one-dimensional nature of his game will count against him and it is far more likely that he is this week’s solution while the coach waits for Jaque Fourie to become available once again.
That may seem unkind to a player who has had a fine season and deserves a chance, but that is the nature of Test rugby. The best get picked; the rest have to wait in line, with or without the presence of clever agents.