Heyneke Meyer has admitted that he tends to err on the side of the conservative, and the Springbok coach has done it again with his answer to the team’s flyhalf conundrum ahead of their Test against Ireland in Dublin on Saturday.
While Meyer has taken the plunge and rewarded Pat Lambie for his outstanding Currie Cup form with the starting number 10 jersey, he has retained Morne Steyn in the match squad, on the bench, undoubtedly as a failsafe.
While Meyer’s caution is understandable – he stands to lose his job if his teams don’t win in an environment where the margin between success and failure is very small – there is the danger that his fears could rub off on the players and leave them with the feeling that the coach doesn’t have complete faith in their abilities.
Meyer has not only suggested he believes Lambie might not be up to the task by including the out-of-form but experienced Steyn as back-up, but also by ditching his plan to make a change at fullback.
Before the tour, Meyer suggested he wanted to look at Jaco Taute at fullback, with the 21-year-old being largely anonymous in his two starts at outside centre at the end of the Rugby Championship. But the coach has ultimately gone with Zane Kirchner again, the Bulls man’s tactical kicking ability saving him and again pointing to the lack of total faith in Lambie’s abilities.
Of course, Meyer does deserve some credit for going down the Lambie route at 10 when he probably felt Steyn was the totally safe choice. But the Bulls player’s confidence is gone, and it will be seriously tested if he has to be rushed off the bench in the final quarter with the Springboks in trouble.
Elton Jantjies, who was preferred to Steyn as the injured Johan Goosen’s back-up in the last two Tests, is now gone from the match-day 22 and has paid for some average showings as the defending champion Lions were eliminated from the Currie Cup.
Apart from improving his winning record, which currently stands at just 44%, the other thing Meyer is hoping to get from the Great Britain and Ireland tour is an indication of which players can shine in those conditions, with an eye on the next World Cup in England and Wales in 2015.
And they are conditions that the Springboks have often struggled in. They have just emerged from a three-match losing streak against Ireland, scraping home 23-21 at the Aviva Stadium two years ago, and they can expect the men in emerald green to come out with intense passion and commitment.
Ireland themselves have some hard knocks to recover from, their previous Test resulting in a 60-0 whitewash at the hands of the All Blacks in Hamilton in June, while they have also been hard-hit by injuries.
Centre Brian O’Driscoll, hooker Rory Best, flank Sean O’Brien and fullback Rob Kearney are all out of action for all their November internationals, while loose forward Stephen Ferris (ankle) and lock Paul O’Connell (back) failed to recover from their niggles and were both ruled out this week.
But the Irish still boast quality players, particularly in their backline. Centres Gordon D’Arcy and Keith Earls and wing Tommy Bowe just need the slightest aperture in the defence to be a major threat, but they will need a steady diet of front-foot ball to make that happen.
It is up front where the Springboks will be hoping to really dominate the Irish. There were times against both Australia and New Zealand when the South African pack overwhelmed their opponents and they will be looking to dominate the collisions again on Saturday.
Ireland’s new captain, eighthman Jamie Heaslip, will need to lead from the front but the Springboks will have Duane Vermeulen and Willem Alberts watching him closely to ensure the powerful 28-year-old does not build up momentum for his side.
Flyhalf Jonathan Sexton and his replacement, Ronan O’Gara, have both previously kicked Ireland to victory over the Springboks and they will be looking to dominate territory and grab whatever points are on offer through penalties.
The Springboks will obviously have to meet fire with fire, but discipline will be paramount with referee Wayne Barnes sometimes verging on the pedantic. Rainy weather is also expected to hit the Irish capital on Friday, making the game even more of an arm-wrestle. There will be an especially interesting clash between hooker Adriaan Strauss and his cousin Richardt, who will make his Test debut on Saturday in the unlikely colours of Ireland.
While the Test will be won and lost up front, most eyes, however, will be on Lambie and whether he can do enough to make that number 10 jersey his own. To convince Meyer of that, the young star will need to control the game with his boot as much as anything else. He managed to do it for the Sharks during their exceptionally wet October and there is no reason Lambie can’t do it again.