South Africa’s final chance to knock the rust off their game before the World Cup is in Port Elizabeth on Saturday. After this, the next outing will be against Wales in Wellington on September 11. Five changes have been made to the side that lost 14-9 to Australia last week and there is a look of “work in progress” about the team, rather than the finished article.
Three weeks ago the Springbok B team was on tour in the Antipodes and after a comprehensive defeat at the hands of Australia, Bok coach Peter de Villiers announced a side to play New Zealand with Morné Steyn at flyhalf and Patrick Lambie at fullback. When match day arrived, however, the two had swapped places.
There was a certain amount of déjà vu this week, then, when De Villiers again announced a side with Steyn at flyhalf and Lambie at fullback. This time we are assured that there will be no jiggery pokery with positions and, according to both player and coach, this will be a last chance for Steyn to stake a place in the World Cup squad.
Steyn has swapped places on the bench with Butch James, last week’s starting flyhalf, and is likely to get 50 minutes to find a way to stop the guillotine. Ironically, he might yet be saved by Lambie if the young man has an impressive outing at fullback. That’s because the hamstring injury suffered by Francois Steyn last week has opened up a fresh debate.
Steyn arrived back from France carrying rather more weight than the selectors had hoped. When he made his Test debut in 2006 as a 19-year-old, Steyn weighed in at 100kg. A year later his weight had gone up to 104kg, but rumour has it that he now tips the scales at a hefty 110kg.
It is wrong to fit freaks into generalisations, and Steyn’s frame and talent are indeed freakish, but it might be argued that last week’s injury was an accident waiting to happen. And when you are carrying that much weight injuries take longer to heal. One door closes and another opens, however, and Lambie may find himself in the right place at the right time.
Playing ‘find the lady’?
Lambie played several seasons at Michaelhouse in the number 15 jersey and began his Sharks career there too. He played for the Sharks against Western Province there last week and he has the pedigree to do a fine job against the All Blacks. The question for the selectors is whether they will be taking one Steyn or two to the World Cup, or perhaps none at all.
There are other dynamics at play this weekend. The back row looks more balanced with the inclusion of Willem Alberts at seven in place of Danie Rossouw. Pierre Spies had his best game for some time against the Wallabies and the combination of his pace, Alberts’ power and the pickpocketing ability of Heinrich Brussow is an intriguing one.
The announcement on Thursday that Juan Smith had lost his race against time to recover from an Achilles tendon tear reduces the options in the back row. But the imminent return of Schalk Burger will go some way towards alleviating the problem. It will entrench Spies’ position in the side and allow Alberts to strengthen the bench with his ability to cover both seven and eight.
The other conundrum is in the front row, where most of the criticism was directed after the defeat by Australia. The starting line up of Jannie du Plessis, John Smit and Tendai Mtawarira did an impressive job, but when the coaching team brought on the cavalry in the second half the scrum fell apart.
Gurthro Steenkamp’s lack of match fitness stuck out like a sore thumb and moving Smit to tight head prop should now be classified as emergency procedure, not tactical dexterity. De Villiers has to make a choice, not play “find the lady” in the front row with the second-most-capped Springbok of all time.
It is clear with hindsight that Smit’s peripatetic career since 2009 coincided with the emergence of Bismarck du Plessis as the number one hooker in the land. The Bethlehem farmer looked the best Springbok on the field when he came on last week and it is counterproductive to have him warming the bench when he should be charging in with the opening whistle, causing havoc among the opposition.
This week the hooking roles have been reversed and, when the dust has settled, it may be that fact which will remain germane the next time a Springbok team is chosen for a Test match.