- Sat 19 Sep South Africa v Japan, Brighton Community Stadium, 4.45pm
- Sat 26 Sep South Africa v Samoa, Villa Park, 4.45pm
- Sat 3 Oct South Africa v Scotland, St. James’ Park, 4.45pm
- Weds 7 Oct South Africa v United States, Olympic Stadium, 4.45pm
Odds to win World Cup: 11/2
Coach: Heyneke Meyer
Captain: Jean de Villiers
Has the World Cup come at just the right time for South Africa, or just the wrong? Evidence for the former would be the inclusion in their squad (presumably on the basis they are now fully fit) of such key players as Jean de Villiers, Duane Vermeulen, Fourie du Preez, Willem Alberts, Pat Lambie, Victor Matfield and Francois Louw. All of the above are first choice, certainly for the match-day squad, but most for the XV; all are returning or have just returned from injury absences, some of significant length. So, an optimistic assessment might see them as coming together just in the nick of time.
More realistically, though, Heyneke Meyer could have done with some sort of delay to the World Cup, of let’s say a month, to bring these recent absentees up to speed. Or he could have organised an extra warm-up game or two. New Zealand and South Africa are the only sides not to have troubled themselves with anything as trivial as those. They are, after all, almost always the first and second best teams in the world.
Which brings us to the reasons for thinking this World Cup is coming at just the wrong time for South Africa. A year ago, they came second in the Rugby Championship for the second year running. They were ranked the second best team in the world. In short, they were in second, on the shoulder of the leaders, ready to make their play as the home strait unwound.
Since then, though, they have become the first team other than Argentina to finish last in the Rugby Championship. Following the pivotal defeat – at home to the Pumas – they slipped to fifth in the world rankings. They have since moved up to third, but only because England and Ireland have lost warm-up matches lately, so hardly a resounding endorsement.
So much for the maligned rankings. That defeat to Argentina was a horror show for the Springboks, not only because they were so poor, so thoroughly outplayed and so flattered by the final scoreline of 37-25, but because it has been a long time coming. Rarely can a side have won a match they less deserved to than when South Africa sneaked past the Pumas in Salta in 2014 – apart from, perhaps, when they did the same to Wales in Nelspruit a couple of months earlier. Wales successfully sued for revenge in November, when South Africa also lost to Ireland, and the debacle against Argentina in Durban might be seen as fitting into the same general decline.
Around those landmark defeats, though, there have been positive developments. The Springboks’ losses to Australia and New Zealand in this year’s Rugby Championship were harsh and could have gone their way, particularly the first, which was decided by little more than a blade of grass. In them they showcased two centres of great promise in Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel. The former, in particular, could prove a star at this World Cup.
But the situation at centre represents a broader dilemma for South Africa. Jean de Villiers is the captain with 107 caps in his wardrobe. He has just returned from a terrible injury picked up in that Wales defeat in November. His first start since was in that Argentina defeat in August. Do South Africa opt for his experience and hope he is match fit, or follow the form in the shape of the aforementioned tyros?
Same again in the second row. Does Victor Matfield (vice-captain, 123 caps) break up the young pairing of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager? On form, there’s no question the latter two have to play. Indeed, Etzebeth and De Jager might one day be as familiar a pairing as Botha and Matfield. But they’re not yet, and if Meyer is going to honour the c and v-c he’s written by De Villiers and Matfield’s names, two of South Africa’s form players will be omitted from the starting lineup.
Similar questions surround the integration of Fourie du Preez at scrum-half, who hasn’t played since February. Are Jannie du Plessis and Bryan Habana the forces they once were? Which of the youngsters starts at fly-half – Handre Pollard or Lambie? The latter has had his injuries, but South Africa look more assured when he plays.
In the back row they possess their greatest strengths — but, again, it must be qualified by doubts over recent game time. Louw hasn’t missed much (although, tellingly, he did miss the defeat to Argentina), but Vermeulen and Alberts, ferocious when on form, are both returning from significant lay-offs.
Then there’s the political strife that comes with being a Springbok. When a political party, however fringe, table an apparently serious motion to have the passports of the entire squad removed because there are not enough non-whites among them, it puts into perspective any selection dilemmas the other coaches may be facing.
Meyer will no doubt welcome this time away as an escape from all that. Whatever their problems, South Africa will surely top their pool, notwithstanding Scotland’s recent form, but those problems conform to a wider trend at this World Cup — namely, that it is more open than ever. The usual suspects are struggling to keep their distance from the chasing pack. Whichever of England, Wales and Australia (and Fiji?!) finish second in Pool A, they won’t fear facing the Springboks at Twickenham in the quarter-final. What’s more, they will do so on the back of a trial that will have rendered them match-hardened. If South Africa are in any doubt by then over combinations or the fitness of key players, the timing of this World Cup may prove inauspicious after all.
South Africa’s 31-man World Cup squad
Props Jannie du Plessis (Sharks), Frans Malherbe (Western Province), Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks), Trevor Nyakane (Bulls), Coenie Oosthuizen (Central Cheetahs).
Hookers Schalk Brits (Saracens), Bismarck du Plessis (Montpellier), Adriaan Strauss (Bulls).
Locks Lood de Jager (Central Cheetahs), Pieter-Steph du Toit (Sharks), Eben Etzebeth (Stormers), Victor Matfield (Bulls).
Back-rows Willem Alberts (Stade Francais), Schalk Burger (Suntory Sungoliath), Siya Kolisi (Stormers), Francois Louw (Bath), Duane Vermeulen (Toulon).
Scrum-halves Fourie du Preez (Suntory Sungoliath), Rudy Paige (Bulls), Ruan Pienaar (Ulster).
Fly-halves Pat Lambie (Sharks), Handré Pollard (Bulls), Morné Steyn (Stade Francais).
Centres Jean de Villiers (Stormers, capt), Damian de Allende (Stormers), Jesse Kriel (Bulls).
Wings Bryan Habana (Toulon), Lwazi Mvovo (Sharks), JP Pietersen (Sharks).
Full-backs Zane Kirchner (Leinster), Willie le Roux (Central Cheetahs). – © Guardian News & Media 2015