Who would want to be a coach? Keep your number one scrumhalf in cotton wool for six months, persuade the country that he doesn’t need game time and then watch him get injured in training for his Japanese club two weeks before the first Test of the season.
If the rumour mill is to be believed, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has spent his weekends honing his World Cup campaign around the braai in Pretoria with Fourie du Preez. Now Du Preez has at least six weeks off with knee ligament injury.
He joins a group of 13 walking wounded who have been added to the Springbok squad announced on Saturday, before next week’s warm-up against the World XV in Cape Town. The group includes the designated captain, Jean de Villiers, and several others who thought their Springbok careers were over.
A case in point is Cheetahs flank Heinrich Brussow, about whom Meyer says he has “changed his mind”, although the coach also went out of his way to reiterate that Francois Louw remains his first choice open side flank.
It is astonishing to think that Brussow is only 28 and that he was an integral member of the World Cup side that campaigned in New Zealand in 2011. Indeed, the specific moment when the Boks saw their chances of retaining the title slip was when Brussow limped off 20 minutes into the quarterfinal against Australia in Wellington.
It is perhaps a form of poetic justice that the pocket battleship’s return to favour coincides with this week’s Super Rugby final between the Hurricanes and Highlanders in Wellington, at the same venue where he played his last Test.
Also back in the squad is another sublime talent in Jaque Fourie. In this case, it is not the vagaries of selector opinion but the extremely deep pockets of his Japanese employers that have kept Fourie out of the reckoning. He signed a contract three times more lucrative than anything on offer at home and consequently found it impossible to argue against a clause that prevented him playing international rugby.
The kind of diplomacy plainly absent from most of South Africa’s embassies has made Fourie available again in World Cup year.
These may be the actions that will decide future contracts. Players will choose to walk away from Test rugby if there is sufficient money on the table on the understanding that they will become available for their national side in a World Cup year.
That would seem more than a little mercenary, but some players earn the right to be treated differently because of an abundance of talent. Fourie is one of those, a giant in his position and unchallenged by anyone currently playing in the 13 jersey in South Africa.
Under the circumstances, it is germane to ask the question whether there is an equally pressing case for the inclusion of Frans Steyn, another 2007 World Cup winner who, like Brussow, is still only 28. It would appear that the South African Rugby Union (Saru) and Steyn have kissed and made up, which is startling given the acrimony surrounding the utility back’s departure from the side during the build-up to the Durban Test last year.
Saru should have drawn the line
It is always tempting to make exceptions for exceptional players, but for the sake of the team, Saru should have drawn the line here. Steyn’s best position is still up for debate, but if it were to be flyhalf then Handré Pollard and Pat Lambie are both better, and if it were to be fullback, the same goes for Willie le Roux and the welcome newcomer, Jesse Kriel.
That leaves inside centre and it seems more than a little odd that Saru would invest so much time and effort in getting Jean de Villiers fit if they were not going to pick him in his favourite position.
In the event that De Villiers fails in his quest to regain full fitness, there might be an argument for Steyn’s inclusion, but even then there would be pressure on the selectors to include Stormers centre Damian de Allende in the starting line-up. De Allende was the most consistently impressive Stormers back in the run-up to the Super Rugby playoffs. He is a player who lacks the X factor, but fits the template of big and strong that Meyer is famous for preferring.
So, if Steyn is not good enough to play in any of his preferred positions, can the enormous drop and penalty goals that emanate from his prodigious boot be enough to ensure his presence in a match 23? Surely not. Not unless there is a further extreme diminution of players from which the coach has to choose because of injury between now and the departure for the World Cup.
Meyer has become well known for his inclusiveness, having selected 75 players in three years at the helm, but announcing a squad of 49 so close to the World Cup suggests he is making a rod for his own back.
The special treatment meted out to Du Preez and Fourie can be justified, if not wholeheartedly condoned. But the olive branch extended to Steyn looks like weakness at a time when firm guidance is needed.