Rookies suggest Meyer is looking back to the future
The first Springbok squad of the season was named this week and, with just 16 months to go to the next World Cup, you could be forgiven for expecting it to offer insight into the thinking of coach Heyneke Meyer. But you would be wrong. The 36 names announced by the South African Rugby Union do not include any European-based players, as the season there is still in progress.
There is also a list of injured personnel to be taken into account and some pussyfooting around the wishes of the minister of sport. Ultimately, the four-day camp in Durban that begins on Sunday is largely a cobweb-removing exercise – despite the fact that the first Test of the season, against Nick Mallett’s World XV in Cape Town, is just a fortnight away.
Meyer’s conservative nature dictates that the uncapped players in the squad are highly unlikely to feature in the June internationals. They are more a reflection of the type of player the coach prefers.
Damian de Allende of the Stormers, for instance, is big and strong and able to play anywhere in the midfield. He is a powerful ball carrier but subtlety is not his strength. S’bura Sithole of the Sharks fits the same mould as De Allende. He is perhaps a tad quicker than the Stormers man but inferior when it comes to ball skills.
The new forwards espouse the Meyer template to a T – broadswords rather than rapiers. Loosehead prop Marcel van der Merwe looked like a future Springbok when he came through the age-group ranks at the Cheetahs. It could be argued that he has yet to fulfil that youthful promise, and many will suggest that his elevation now is owed to the fact that he has switched allegiance to the Bulls.
Flanker Jacques du Plessis is also a Bull, although he used last week’s bye for Meyer’s former franchise in Super Rugby as an opportunity to visit his old school in Ermelo. Du Plessis is extremely tall and with the kind of shaggy blonde hair that makes him easy to identify on the field. But in this country where international-class flankers grow on trees, it is hard to imagine him challenging for a Test spot any time soon.
The same is true of two Cheetahs forwards who have been called up for the first time: Lood de Jager and Teboho Mohoje. The latter is from Qwaqwa and is another graduate of the Varsity Cup, where he has been playing at lock for the University of the Free State. Mohoje lacks the dimensions required for playing the position at provincial level, but has been outstanding as a tearaway flank coming off the bench for the Cheetahs in Super Rugby.
De Jager owes his inclusion to a dearth of options for the coach at lock, with Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth and a host of others on the injured list. De Jager was outstanding for the Cheetahs last season when they surprised everyone, themselves included, by making the play-offs. This year the gentle giant has been less prominent and it seems he lacks the mongrel attitude required to compete at the highest level.
The only other uncapped player in the squad is Marnitz Boshoff of the Lions. Boshoff was the catalyst for his team in the opening weeks of Super Rugby, slotting penalties, conversions and drop goals from everywhere and going past 100 points in his fifth game. But, in common with the rest of the team, his form has not survived the Lions’ long winless streak.
It is likely that, in common with most of those named above, Boshoff is in the training squad to mimic the play of those who are not available now but will be shortly. In Boshoff’s case it is Morné Steyn, one of the 10 or so European-based players not considered.
It might seem unduly harsh, cynical even, for the coach to ignite false hope in this manner but it cannot honestly be argued that any of the new faces carries the kind of irresistible form that screams: “Pick me!”
Indeed, for the most part, the squad looks back instead of forward. As anticipated, Victor Matfield is recalled after a two-year hiatus. Thankfully, he is in the squad on merit, having been consistently the best South African lock on display in Super Rugby. Schalk Burger is also part of the meritocracy and if he can overcome a run of debilitating injuries, he deserves another go at Test rugby.
Both Matfield and Burger last played for the Boks in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal defeat against Australia. Few now recall that that was also the last Test for Heinrich Brüssow, perhaps the most unexpected inclusion in Meyer’s list. Brüssow limped off the field 20 minutes into the game at Wellington’s Cake Tin, and Wallaby pickpocket David Pocock was never subsequently challenged at the breakdown. Those who blame referee Bryce Lawrence for the loss conveniently forget how Brüssow’s matchless skills were never replaced.
Most critics expect Meyer to prune as many as 15 names from this squad before the Tests that follow the warm-up against the World XV. It would be to the huge benefit of Springbok rugby if Brüssow is not among the culled.