In the harsh light of day, the performance of the Welsh national team in successive weekends probably tells us more about the current standing of the Springbok rugby team than an end-of-year report card that reads played 14, won 10, lost four.
Wales held their own against New Zealand for 70 minutes, and then got run over with three exceptional tries. In those final minutes, Richie McCaw’s All Blacks proved undoubtedly that they are the best team in the world.
Wales also competed on an equal basis against the Springboks, hitting the last 10 minutes with a six-point lead. The difference was that the Boks had nothing left to give.
Perhaps the moment that summed it all up was Francois Hougaard’s decision to tap a penalty, which he then mystifyingly kicked straight into touch, thus losing possession, distance and, quite possibly, the match.
Ironically enough, Hougaard’s try against the All Blacks at Ellis Park had just been anointed as world try of the year – ironic because it might easily be the final fanfare of his Springbok career. If that seems unduly harsh, he has eight months to prove everyone wrong and force his way back into the national side in time for the next Test. For the bald fact of the matter is that there are now just four Tests – a curtailed Rugby Championship and a friendly against Argentina – remaining between now and the World Cup.
For coach Heyneke Meyer the time between now and next July will involve a protracted walk on eggs. That’s because he already knows the team he wants to take to the World Cup, but the attrition associated with the modern game suggests that if he finally gets to select 75% of his preferred squad he will have done well.
To put that into perspective, the months between now and the Rugby Championship will drag by for Meyer, but for his captain time will pass far more rapidly. Jean de Villiers has a habit of missing World Cups and he deserves the chance to play a full role in one. The extent of the injury to his knee suggests it will be touch and go. Time is not on his side.
There are those who would wish him a less than speedy recovery, arguing that the best days of De Villiers are behind him. But if he lacks the flaring pace of his youth – remember all those intercept tries he scored – there is so much more to him now than there was then. Above all, he commands the respect of not only his own players but also the rest of the rugby playing world.
That is something that no coach dare discard lightly.
The constant theme of Meyer’s three-year tenure as Bok coach has been a stubborn refusal to discard players who have been there, done that. He has gone out of his way to convince his bosses at the South African Rugby Union that foreign-based players should still be picked while they remain the best in their respective positions.
And although there are several players in the above categories for whom primacy is arguable, the recently completed tour has clarified some thoughts for the coach.
It is as plain as a pikestaff that the two best scrumhalves available to Meyer are Fourie du Preez and Ruan Pienaar. Cobus Reinach has done enough to be taken along as the third option. Victor Matfield’s remarkable Indian summer is not an illusion. No excuses need be made for the most capped Springbok of all time, since he is as good today as he was at the 2007 World Cup. If De Villiers fails to recover from his injury, the captaincy reverts to Matfield as a matter of course.
The team needs a fit and firing Jannie du Plessis. The GP from Bethlehem has good days and bad days but, like De Villiers, he commands respect among colleagues and opponents. What Meyer needs is a genuine tight head on the bench. There are half a dozen players who have had a shot at that berth and, for once, it is probably sensible to make the call at the end of the next Super Rugby season.
Form and fitness matter more in the number three jersey than anywhere else in the team.
So Du Preez, Pienaar, Matfield, Du Plessis and, hopefully, De Villiers should provide the nucleus of experience that a World Cup winning team requires. It is safe to add the name of Bryan Habana, unchallenged as the best wing in South Africa and, probably, the world. Schalk Burger should also feature, although the back row is scarcely an area of concern. The fourth-best combination for the Springboks would be better than the first choices of most nations.
Ultimately, the one thing Meyer must remember is that, unlike most of the teams at RWC 2015, he has the available talent to win the tournament. What he really needs is greater consistency on match day and a willingness to change things that aren’t working sooner rather than later.