A month later than usual, the Springbok season shifts into gear with a fixture against a World XV in Cape Town this weekend. The realignment of the season because the World Cup closed the June international window. It also reduced the rugby championship to a single round of games, meaning the Boks have just five fixtures to get their ducks in a row ahead of the World Cup that begins in Britain in mid-September.
The first of those fixtures is not an official test, although the quality of the team that the Boks play at Newlands will be far greater than they will face in their first World Cup outing against Japan in Brighton on September 19. There are 10 players from Toulon, club champions of Europe for the last three years, together with a mix of former Boks, Wallabies and All Blacks.
Coach Heyneke Meyer cannot select his strongest side for any of the pre-World Cup games, because of injury. Stormers number eight, Duane Vermeulen, opted for neck surgery this week, while scrum half Fourie du Preez injured his knee in training and is out for a month and a half. Meyer also decided to let Jaque Fourie return to Japan to train with his club.
Fourie has been in South Africa for the last four months, but was contacted by Meyer at the very last minute about to making himself available for the World Cup. In the event of the 32-year-old not managing to get back into shape in time, Meyer will have to find an alternative at outside centre. To that end, Bulls fullback Jesse Kriel was handed the number 13 jersey this week.
It is a bold move that rewards a Super Rugby season of high endeavour for the former Maritzburg College pupil. Kriel has played fullback most of his career, with twin brother Dan filling the outside centre role at school. Fourie was also a fullback at Monument and the Lions before switching to outside centre, and Meyer is clearly hoping that history will repeat itself.
Kriel will partner Damian de Allende of the Stormers in the first half and, if he lasts the pace, he will be joined by Jean de Villiers towards the hour mark.
De Villiers has made a remarkable recovery from a dislocated knee and will be managed carefully ahead of the World Cup. De Villiers is one of 10 players in the 23-man squad who have World Cup winner’s medals from 2007.
The oldest of the 10 is also the captain on Saturday. It is fair to say that Victor Matfield’s form in the second half of the Super Rugby season matched that of the faltering Bulls in general. It may be that, after defying old Father Time for the last two years, he has finally hit the wall. If that is the case he will be ruthlessly exposed by former lock partner Bakkies Botha and All Black legend Ali Williams on Saturday.
Possibly we are seeing a glimpse of Meyer’s plans for the World Cup. In 2007 Jake White took veteran back-rower Bob Skinstad to France with the specific aim of having him captain the “dirt trackers”. White knew that Skinstad’s experience would be invaluable for the squad and Meyer has concluded that he has room for the record Springbok cap winner in a squad of 31 for the showpiece.
There are several players in Saturday’s 23 for whom time is running out. JP Pietersen’s inclusion on the right wing is a case in point. Pietersen, who turns 29 on Sunday, has been a shadow of his former self with the Sharks this season. His handling skills in particular have been sadly lacking and he has missed far too many tackles.
It is possible that Meyer will withdraw Pietersen after half time and move De Allende to wing, allowing De Villiers to partner Kriel. Several former Bok coaches have suggested that De Allende is suited to playing out wide, where his strength and size will be needed against sides such as New Zealand and Ireland.
Pat Lambie may get a run at fullback in the second half. Lambie has missed most of the season with a neck injury and almost missed this game with a nasty accident in training on Monday that required stitches to his eye. Like De Villiers, Lambie is in need of game time and will be eased back into the spotlight.
The withdrawal of Vermeulen allows a first start for the admirable Lions captain, Warren Whiteley, at number eight. Whiteley’s game is very different from the man he replaces. As Super Rugby’s number one tackler this season, his greatest asset is the ability to get back into action immediately after hitting the ground.
Whiteley’s expert linking play allows Meyer to add a pair of fetcher flanks to the mix in Francois Louw and Marcell Coetzee, which means that there will be a good deal more pace in the back row than we have become used to over the last two years.
Ultimately, Meyer will want to get through the game without any more serious injuries and with an idea that key players who have been part of poor team performances in Super Rugby this year can find their international feet again. The greater challenges lie ahead, with tests against Australia and New Zealand in the coming fortnight.