In the wake of the Springboks’s 46-6 win against Samoa last week, the litany of injuries, when added to the team’s first-round loss to Japan, saw coach Heyneke Meyer pleading for more time to select his match-day squad for this week’s vital encounter with Scotland.
Wednesday’s late announcement, together with Monday’s cancelled training session, suggested that Meyer knew what team he wanted to pick, but that he was waiting for the medical staff to produce a miracle. It is moot whether he got what he wished for.
The worry for the road ahead is that the starting 15 line-up that was eventually released includes five players clearly not in showroom condition, namely Jesse Kriel, Damian de Allende, Fourie du Preez, Jannie du Plessis and Duane Vermeulen.
The retirement of the great Jean de Villiers overshadowed everything in the early part of the week, but it is the fragile state of those left behind that should be concerning fans now.
In addition to the five names above, Willem Alberts has made it on to the bench despite a calf strain sidelining him for the past two weeks, and Victor Matfield succumbed to the hamstring strain that has troubled him all year. It was probably Matfield’s condition that irked the coach most, for in one fell swoop he was deprived of both the players he went out of his way to include in the campaign.
It meant, apart from anything else, that he needed a new captain, and the armband has been passed to Du Preez instead of one of the other candidates, Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen. It goes without saying, of course, that if they stay fit their chance will come.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When the pools were announced for the tournament there were complaints that South Africa had been given an easy ride. Defeat to Japan in the opening encounter changed everything. Four days later the Boks’ embarrassment was deepened by the ease with which Scotland dealt with the Brave Blossoms.
This was the template that Meyer and his brains trust had expected for Brighton: a brave tackling display by Japan and a penalty or two in the first half, followed by capitulation to a stronger and more skilful opponent in the second half. Except that it would be hard to argue that Scotland were either stronger or more skilful than Japan.
It could be argued that Japan were ragged after a four-day turnaround from the heroics of Brighton. But their canny coach, Eddie Jones, had dug deep into his squad to find fresh bodies and, anyway, they did not look ragged until the Scots began to run at them. They did so from depth and with a subtlety apparently beyond the Springbok effort.
It’s no coincidence, then, that subtlety was almost entirely absent at Villa Park last week. The Boks expected a physical battering and that’s what they got, although even they must have been shocked by the sheer rate of attrition. What it means is that this week’s match is a meeting of opposites, with the impossible task of picking a favourite a direct corollary.
We have reached the stage of the tournament where log point pressure will affect the proceedings. The Scots are in pole position, having grabbed bonus point wins from their games against Japan and the United States. A win against South Africa would guarantee them a quarterfinal place, with the comforting notion that they could afford to lose their final pool match against Samoa.
South Africa are not out if they lose, but they might need a lot of points against the US to clinch second place in the pool. The two points the Boks managed in their defeat to Japan are a saving grace, but if they are to morph into genuine title contenders they need to keep winning.
Ironically, of course, if the list of walking wounded continues to grow, the squad’s ranks will be swelled by players flown from home who do not have the stain of the Japan performance on their psyche.
In 1995, it was a timely injury to Pieter Hendricks that allowed Chester Williams to make such an impact on South Africa’s first successful campaign. Williams had been injured at the time of original selection, but scored four tries against Samoa straight after being called up.
This week it is Jan Serfontein who comes directly from Currie Cup rugby on to the bench, and next week there could be a few more. It could even be construed as an unfair advantage, with no time zone constraints and the oldest provincial competition in the world keeping South Africa’s reserves fit and in form.
But all the talent in the wings will count for nothing if the match- day squad cannot find their rhythm. There were signs of it against Samoa and JP Pietersen chose exactly the right moment to discover the form that has eluded him all season. Apparently Bismarck du Plessis has served his penance and goes from not being in the 23 to starting hooker. It will make a huge difference at the breakdowns, an area where Scotland are traditionally strong.
By the time the final whistle blows at St James Park, we will know whether Meyer’s men are genuine contenders who got left in the blocks in their opening game, or paper tigers. The nation holds its breath.