Lots to prove for patched up Boks
There are three Tests to go before the end of Heyneke Meyer's first season as Springbok coach and his selection for the tour of Britain and Ireland reflects a problematic year. He has had to patch and make up because of the injury-enforced absence of 10 players who had been part of previous squads in 2012 and these injuries have forced him to cast his net wider than either he or his employers might wish.
The beneficiaries are Gurthrö Steenkamp, a World Cup participant in 2011, who joins the squad from Toulouse, and Schalk Brits of Saracens. Brits won three caps for the Boks in 2008 before relocating. He has earned consistently rave reviews in Britain, but was always considered too "loose" for Springbok purposes.
His return from the international wilderness is at the expense of Sharks hooker Craig Burden, who may have paid the price for a dismal day at the line-out office in last week's Currie Cup final.
Conspiracy theorists will once again point out that the Bulls have more players in the squad (eight) than any other province. The newly anointed Currie Cup champions, Western Province, have just four players in the 31-man squad, two fewer than the Lions, who will not be participating in Super Rugby next year. The Sharks have seven representatives, but their inspirational captain, Keegan Daniel, is not among them, trumped by the youthful promise of Bulls flank Arno Botha.
The question might easily be posed why Meyer needs 31 players for three games on successive weekends. There are no midweek matches and it is inevitable that several tourists will return home having seen no game time at all. That is likely to be the case for the one new name in the mix, Raymond Rhule. The Free State flyer turns 20 next week and is a replacement for Bryan Habana, who injured himself in the Currie Cup final.
Rhule is a special talent and it might be argued that Meyer is correct to get him into the mix in the same way that Jake White did with Habana when the latter was at a similar stage of his career. But if there is justification for taking Rhule, it is difficult to understand the presence of a few other names.
Why is Morné Steyn in the squad? Rhule may be an unknown quantity at this stage, but Steyn's strengths and weaknesses have been ruthlessly picked over this year. If ever there was a time to give the Bulls flyhalf a breather this is it – and yet the coach seems set on giving his man yet another chance, the excuse this time being the slow fields of northern Europe.
For the record, Meyer's squad has three players who should be considered at flyhalf ahead of Steyn: Elton Jantjies, Pat Lambie and Ruan Pienaar. He has the perfect opportunity to give Jantjies and Lambie game time in their favoured positions, and in any sane scenario Steyn would be left holding the tackle bags. But that is not likely to be the way it plays out.
Two locks are also lucky to be in the squad: the unrelated Flip van der Merwe and Franco van der Merwe. The former has trundled his way around international rugby for three seasons now without ever suggesting that he may take on the mantle of the retired Bakkies Botha. The latter, a Lions stalwart, has signed to play Super Rugby for the Sharks next year, largely because the coastal union will lose Steven Sykes to the Kings.
Flip is 27, Franco 29 and both are known quantities. If Rhule is touring to get accustomed to international rugby, then where is Pieter-Steph du Toit, the 20-year-old Sharks lock who was part of Meyer's extended squad back in May? It seems that the coach has yet to get over the loss of both Botha and Victor Matfield and an artificial "lock crisis" has been created.
For all the nit-picking, however, this Springbok squad has enough talent to win all three Tests. First up is Ireland in Dublin, a fixture that brings the possibility of cousins hooking against each other in Adriaan Strauss (Free State and South Africa) and Richardt Strauss (Free State and Ireland). The second Test is against Scotland in Edinburgh and the tour concludes with England at Twickenham on November 24.
This will be the fourth Test of the season between the Boks and England and Meyer will be hoping that his team takes a significant step up from the form they showed in the 14-14 draw in Port Elizabeth at the end of June.
That was the day when the coach was taunted by a passionate local crowd, who could not understand why Jantjies was left on the bench for the duration of the match.
It would be a delicious irony if, by the time the Twickenham Test rolls around, Jantjies has established himself as the first-choice flyhalf for South Africa. If a few other selection conundrums have been resolved by then and results fall into line, Meyer might yet look back on this tour as the moment he took control of his destiny.