The Springboks and Heyneke Meyer are on the back foot and the coach is relying on two changes to his forward pack and a new halfback to change their fortunes against Australia this weekend.
Meyer has always said he will target Australia up front in Perth on Saturday and the inclusion of Duane Vermeulen at eighthman and Juandre Kruger at lock should give the pack more vitality, with the emphasis on a greater ability to play hard on to the ball.
That means the same backline which failed to impress against Argentina will be running out on to the field, but with one significant change. Ruan Pienaar has sat on bench for all five Tests of the Meyer reign, but will get his big chance as the starting scrumhalf on Saturday.
Francois Hougaard, for all his natural talent, has looked hesitant as the vital link between forwards and backs, a round peg in the square hole of Meyer’s game plan. He has not been helped by an inexperienced pack that has struggled to give him front-foot ball, but his erratic service to Morne Steyn and the inaccuracy of his kicking have also spread the lack of momentum down the backline.
It’s not all bad news for Hougaard, however, as Meyer does fancy the X-factor he brings to the game and will start him on the left wing, where his Springbok career began so spectacularly in 2010. The 24-year-old will hope the rainy weather in Perth clears up and it is a dry day on Saturday that will suit his running skills.
But it is the Springbok pack that will have to rule the night at Subiaco if South Africa are to prevent the Wallabies from claiming a record fifth straight win against them. These are dark times for the much-vaunted strength of Springbok rugby with Bismarck du Plessis, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Gurthro Steenkamp, Pierre Spies and Chiliboy Ralepelle all out injured and Bakkies Botha and Ryan Kankowski unavailable. Plus the new boys in the Rugby Championship, Argentina, matched them up front and left them scratching their heads in search of answers.
Meyer’s answer is to go back to a strength that destroyed all comers in 2007 and 2009 – the lineout. Of course, the career of the kingpin of that set-piece, the talismanic Victor Matfield, is now over, but the Springbok coach has made it clear he wants to attack the Wallabies at source, at the set-pieces.
Vermeulen, as destructive a player you can get when fully fit, will finally make his Springbok debut at eighthman, but Meyer resisted the temptation to choose the whole Stormers lineout. With doubts over hooker Adriaan Strauss’s knee – he has trained just once this week – Tiaan Liebenberg could of made his first start in the number two jersey, Eben Etzebeth has impressed at number four and that might have earned Andries Bekker, who had no positive impact in Mendoza, a reprieve at five.
But Meyer has said Bekker is simply not fit enough at the moment. “Andries’ back is almost there and his ankle is almost there. I just wanted to give him a break because we know what we have in Andries. He is a quality player, but he has come through a few injuries and is probably not 100% fit. Juandre played really well against England and I wasn’t happy with our cleaning and the way we recycled ball against Argentina and Juandre plays more to the ball than Andries and we will need that on Saturday,” he said.
“Duane is a specialist number eight and is good in the lineout. Against Argentina, we gave them easy ball at the back of the lineout because we didn’t have a jumper there,” Meyer added.
With Vermeulen coming in at eight, there is a further change in the loose trio with Willem Alberts shifting to number seven in place of Jacques Potgieter, who was a disappointment against the Pumas.
Meyer controversially found no place in the touring squad for Keegan Daniel, who enjoyed a top-class SuperRugby campaign for the Sharks and is a dynamic, linking, offloading type of player. The coach had also previously indicated that a “horses-for-courses” selection policy should get Daniel a call-up against the Wallabies.
“Keegan was unlucky as I felt he could have come on against Australia because they fit his game plan more. But we don’t have a classical number eight at the moment with Pierre Spies and Ryan Kankowski out and as I said, Duane provides us with another lineout jumper,” Meyer explained. But why not a spot on the bench again for Daniel?
Meyer has instead gone for a fetcher in Francois Louw, a well-travelled flank who is currently enjoying a stint with Bath in England. “On the bench, I had to decide between an impact player or a specialist openside flank. If the referee is going to allow stealing of the ball at the rucks [Saturday’s official is Nigel Owens, a Welshman known to be more lenient at the breakdown], then I want to have a specialist openside,” Meyer said. “I’ve really been impressed with Francois Louw. When we did our ball-stealing drill he was superb on the ground and he looks in great condition. He is definitely going to get game-time on Saturday and I’m quite excited to see what he can bring to the party.”
But it’s not a fetcher stealing the opposition ball that the Springboks need most. It is better protection of their own ball at the rucks and for that to happen, the pack as a whole need to show more fire in the belly when it comes to clearing out.
“We have got quite a big back row and Francois gives us an insurance policy on the bench depending on how the game goes or how the ref interprets the breakdown,” said Meyer. “I want a higher work-rate from the back row. More ball carries and we have to break the line open as well. The one thing we don’t have in our back row, which is a little bit of a concern, is out-and-out pace but I think they make up for that with a big work-rate.
To ensure an 80-minute effort up front, Meyer had the opportunity to go for a 5-2 split on the bench with either two locks or two loose forwards amongst the reserves.
But the coach has selected three backs amongst the reserves, including the exciting 20-year-old flyhalf Johan Goosen – a surprisingly bold move by Meyer. “I believe that Goosen can be a world-class 10. He has got everything that you need from a flyhalf and I want to get him into the system as soon as possible, as well as getting him into the culture and the patterns of play because the 10 makes most of the calls.
“I want to give him some game-time as soon as possible, but it depends on what happens during Saturday’s game as Morne Steyn is one of our more experienced players,” he said.
Pat Lambie, who has frustratingly not seen any action off the bench in the last two games, and exciting wing Lwazi Mvovo are the other backline substitutes.
While their contributions in open play left much to be desired in Mendoza, the scrummaging is not broken so Meyer is unlikely to make changes in the front row, unless Strauss cannot play of course. If Liebenberg has to start, then the uncapped Craig Burden will be on the bench and he is a tremendous force in broken play, which could add some much-needed spark on attack.
Springbok team: 15-Zane Kirchner, 14-Bryan Habana, 13-Jean de Villiers, 12-Francois Steyn, 11-Francois Hougaard, 10-Morne Steyn, 9-Ruan Pienaar, 8-Duane Vermeulen, 7-Willem Alberts, 6-Marcell Coetzee, 5-Juandre Kruger, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Jannie du Plessis, 2-Adriaan Strauss, 1-Tendai Mtawarira. Bench- 16-Tiaan Liebenberg, 17-Pat Cilliers, 18-Flip van der Merwe, 19-Francois Louw, 20-Johan Goosen, 21-Pat Lambie, 22-Lwazi Mvovo.