In the end, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer stayed true to his cautious self. Before the tour, which ends in Cardiff on Saturday, he had mooted the idea that the team selected to face Wales would be an experimental one. There were, he said, a number of players in the 36-man squad announced on October 27 who would have their chance in the one fixture that fell outside the international window.
But, although there are eight changes from the team that beat Italy 22-6, the original squad has not been used up.
The most disappointed among the tackling-bag holders will be a quintet of Lions. Hooker Robbie Coetzee got injured in the first week and was replaced by Western Province’s Scarra Ntubeni (who has also not featured in the match day squads).
Back rower Warren Whiteley picked up that most frustrating of injuries – not bad enough to be sent home, but stubbornly present at successive fitness tests. Open-side flank Jaco Kriel will just have to wait his turn, because the Boks are immensely strong on the flank right now. Ruan Dreyer and Marnitz Boshoff were late inclusions and probably never expected to feature.
Elsewhere, there was no room for Jano Vermaak, who replaced the injured Ruan Pienaar in week one, or for another scrumhalf replacement, Rudi Paige, of the Bulls, who flew an awfully long way only to get injured in training. Seabelo Senatla was wisely sent home to join the South African Sevens team preparing for their new season, which leaves just Morné Steyn.
Meyer’s stubborn defence of Steyn as his go-to man at flyhalf has finally come to an end. The team will miss the reliability of his boot but, if this Springbok side is to win next year’s World Cup (RWC), it will have to do rather more than kick penalties successfully. The fact is that both Pat Lambie and Handré Pollard have perfectly acceptable kicking percentages and each brings vastly more to the game elsewhere than Steyn.
If it is indeed the end, it should be acknowledged that the former Bull has rarely let the side down. The accuracy of his boot has won many games for the Boks, including – on debut – the penalty from inside his own half at Loftus that won the series against the British and Irish Lions in 2009. That Steyn can be let go is testimony to the potential of Lambie and Pollard and further confirmation that Meyer’s “change by stealth” policy has worked.
It is possible to imagine that Steyn will join Bakkies Botha in official international retirement next week. Botha’s refusal of a place in last week’s squad says much about the spirit Meyer has fostered. The big man didn’t want to overshadow the occasion, and he did not want to be picked for purely sentimental reasons.
To return to the present, there are reasons for Meyer’s cautious team selection this week. With perhaps the exception of a glorious half-hour against England, the team has limped along on three cylinders for a month. That is partly owed to the long, hard season stretching behind most of the squad. It is no coincidence, for instance, that Lambie has been in vintage form since returning to the side; he has been injured for most of the year and starved of game time.
Another part of the reason for underperformance has been the strength of the opposition. Ireland proved against Australia last week that their performance against the Boks was not a flash in the pan. On this evidence, they will be the strongest of the northern hemisphere sides at next year’s World Cup.
After signs of a revival under Stuart Lancaster, England have been desperately disappointing. As usual, their pack can match anyone, but the backs have been woeful. The halfbacks in particular are dreadful and it is not being arrogant to suggest that Vermaak and Steyn, surplus to requirements with the Boks, would walk into the England side if they were available.
Italy provided exactly the test Meyer needed last week. Hard up front, well marshalled in defence and lacking only a spark to set them free. It is not impossible to imagine them qualifying for the quarterfinals of RWC 2015 as runner-up to Ireland in pool D, ahead of a French team desperately in need of direction.
This leaves this week’s opponents, Wales, who bossed the All Blacks for 68 minutes at the Millennium Stadium last week, only to succumb to the weight of history. They haven’t beaten New Zealand since 1953 and both sides knew it. It will be the same scenario this time around, although this time you only have to go back to Gary Teichmann’s 1999 side for the last Welsh win.
Wales coach Warren Gatland only needs to think back to June at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit for the last time Wales should have beaten the Springboks. The 31-30 result was thanks to two tries in the last eight minutes, the last of which was an extremely questionable penalty try given by referee Steve Walsh. But there is a pattern here: Wales are a good side, more than capable of competing with the best. There is, however, a big difference between being competitive and winning.