The first Springbok team of 2009 will take the field wearing a new jersey. The Springbok and Protea have settled out of court and will henceforth inhabit opposite sides of the jersey. But following last weekend’s remarkable Super 14 final, few would have carped if a pair of Bulls horns had replaced both.
The principal beneficiary of the Bulls’ stupendous form is flyhalf Morne Steyn, the one new cap in Peter de Villiers’s first Springbok squad of the season, announced on Monday. Steyn has been playing first-class rugby for six seasons, without ever suggesting he might be able to thrive at a higher level. His play in the past three weeks has been a revelation.
So much so that the pressure to rehabilitate the injured Ruan Pienaar has been removed. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Gysie’s boy: he wanted to play scrumhalf, but couldn’t get past Fourie du Preez and Ricky Januarie. Persuaded to convert to flyhalf, he was excellent on the end-of-season Bok tour to Europe and is expected to start there against the Lions. But an untimely injury and Steyn’s form may force him back on to the bench to inhabit the dreaded ”utility player” spot.
Pienaar’s best chance at a starting spot will be at fullback, where the retirement of Percy Montgomery and the season-ending injury to Conrad Jantjes has thrown matters wide open. It was assumed that De Villiers had a straightforward choice to make — between the enduring excellence of the 33-year-old Stefan Terblanche and the exciting potential of Zane Kirchner. He picked neither.
Instead he has selected a 28-man squad without a specialist fullback, but with five players who have some experience in the position. Rumour has it that the inside track belongs to JP Pietersen, but others who might be asked to step into the breach are Frans Steyn, Jacque Fourie, Earl Rose and Pienaar.
Frans Steyn would offer the big boot needed at the back in the modern game and Pienaar’s sublime skills would not be out of place there, either. Rose is not good enough and Fourie should stay at centre alongside a fit-again Jean de Villiers.
Pietersen’s selection as the last line of defence would expose the Boks to a fusillade of kicks from their opponents. Pietersen’s kicking is by far the weakest area of his game, as is the case with the two most likely wings, Bryan Habana and Jongi Nokwe.
Someone in the back three has to be able to kick and that’s why Terblanche should have been recalled.
But, ultimately, it is encouraging to note that the Springbok coach has opted not to surprise his captive audience. It is a squad rich in talent, potential and, above all, experience, which seems to have been selected with a task in mind — to beat the British and Irish Lions. Morne Steyn alone has forced his way in on form, which is exactly as it should be.
As for the Lions, the tourists have ample time to work out their best team, and Wednesday night’s demolition of the Golden Lions in Johannesburg suggests that there is talent aplenty. Man of the match Jamie Roberts of Wales seemed to relish playing alongside Brian O’Driscoll and Ugo Monye threw down a marker as a pacy finisher on the wing.
Twelve years ago, when Ian McGeechan’s Lions had a team with Englishmen in most of the key positions, the Boks were in the middle of a restructure. The team that won the World Cup in 1995 had broken up and it was unclear what pattern the team would play under new coach Carel du Plessis.
As it turned out Du Plessis decided he could do without a specialist place kicker and the series foundered on that principle. By contrast, the Lions knew they would have to take every scoring opportunity available to them and decided to pick Neil Jenkins at fullback. Jenkins had played flyhalf all his life and he was far from being anyone’s idea of a classic fullback. His job was to kick goals and he did that with aplomb.
The question to be answered is whether such a narrow, pragmatic approach will work against this Springbok side. If it is based on the victorious Bulls the answer must surely be no. Prior to Saturday’s final the bookmakers gave the Chiefs a 5,5 point start.
That means they expected the match to be decided by two penalties or a try either way.
In reality the Bulls scored eight tries to two and gave a performance that will live long in the memory. It should be noted that Steyn’s form at flyhalf was put under the spotlight thanks to his drop goals, but any side that can score eight tries in a final clearly has a pivot with more than one string to its bow.
Wednesday night’s 10-try performance by the Lions will have settled a few nerves among the tourists, but they would do well to note that the Golden Lions were a rudderless ship. After a poor Super 14 and a change of coach, as well as some rather ridiculous behind-the-scenes bargaining from the Springbok coach, they were not much above the status of tackle bags on the night.