Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer on Monday added veterans Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield and Heinrich Brussow, as well as eight uncapped players, to his plans as he announced a 36-man squad to attend a national training camp in Durban from May 25 to 28.
The returns of Matfield – the second-most capped Springbok of all time with 110 Tests – and Burger (68 Tests) will provide an injury-hit South African team with plenty of experience as they head into a challenging series against Wales and another Rugby Championship campaign beyond that.
Hookers Scarra Ntubeni and Chiliboy Ralepelle, prop Frik Kirsten, locks Pieter-Steph du Toit and Franco van der Merwe, loose forwards Arno Botha and Pierre Spies, scrumhalf Louis Schreuder, utility backs Pat Lambie and Gio Aplon, and centre Jaque Fourie are all out with injury.
The 37-year-old Matfield made a controversial return to rugby this year, having last played in the 2011 World Cup, but has performed with aplomb for the Bulls, stamping his usual mark on the lineouts and also showing good work-rate.
With all the other locks in the squad – except for Flip van der Merwe – still making their way in international rugby, Matfield will be one of the adults amongst all the young, talented children and will have an important role in guiding them through the crucial year before the World Cup, which is often a fraught one for Springbok teams.
Although Meyer is better off in terms of loose forward stocks, the return of Burger, who has shown glimpses of his old high-energy destructiveness for the Stormers, should be welcomed.
“Victor and Schalk have been out of rugby for a long time. They’ve really been in great form recently and the fact that they have not been with the Boks for more than two years has made them hungry for Test rugby yet again,” Meyer said.
“It’s great to welcome them back into the Springbok fold and I know both of them can still add a lot of value to the team with the Rugby World Cup in 2015 looming.
“This is a very big year for us and the players know they will have to step up a gear, be sharp and focused from the moment we get going in Durban. We have 14 very challenging matches ahead in 2014 and it’s imperative that we build on what was a good season last year.
“It’s important that we start building continuity because there are just 18 matches left until the Rugby World Cup starts. But it’s just as important to recognise continuous good form. We also have a number of players struggling with injury niggles or returning from injury which we have to assess.”
Meyer has made it clear before that he does not care for public pressure to select anyone, but the inclusion of Brussow will also be welcomed. Whether there is a place for the pocket dynamo in Meyer’s back row remains to be seen, however.
Duane Vermeulen and Willem Alberts are certainties for the number eight and seven jerseys, while Meyer is unlikely to jettison Bath’s Francois Louw (European-based players were not considered for this squad) after his superb displays for the Springboks last year.
Marcell Coetzee, Burger and Siya Kolisi are probably all ahead of Brussow in the queue as well, leaving him and Bulls rookie Jacques du Plessis, and even Cheetahs lock/flank Teboho Mohoje, to fight over scraps.
Meyer has kept the transformation police happy by selecting 10 players of colour, including six Black Africans, while the fresh blood in the squad is provided by centre/wing Damian de Allende, flyhalf Marnitz Boshoff, lock Lood de Jager, wing Cornal Hendricks, wing/centre S’Bura Sithole, flank Jacques du Plessis, lock/flank Teboho Mohoje and prop Marcel van der Merwe.
“A few new players have put up their hands, which is good to see with the first match of the season, against the World XV in Cape Town, only a few weeks away,” said Meyer.
“It’s very encouraging to see a bunch of new players emerging from Vodacom SuperRugby. This camp will provide us with a great opportunity to work with these players before the squad for the Castle Lager Incoming Series is finalised. I am looking forward to work with these players for the first time,” the coach said.
The contentious areas when it comes to the final selection of the squad for the incoming series would appear to be tighthead prop, lock, scrumhalf, centre and wing. Hooker is a worry in that only two have been named – Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss – and while their quality is undeniable, Meyer will be terrified of one of them getting injured.
The Sharks front row of the two Du Plessis brothers and Tendai Mtawarira are certain starters, but who the back-up to old warhorse Jannie will be remains to be seen.
The Cheetahs scrum has laboured in recent weeks with Coenie Oosthuizen at tighthead and one hopes that the experiment is called off and the destructive 25-year-old is allowed to return to loosehead, particularly with the rise of the promising Frans Malherbe and Marcel van der Merwe in the number three jersey.
Flip van der Merwe, young star Eben Etzebeth and Matfield would appear to be certainties for the squad, but if a fourth lock is chosen, who will it be? Will Meyer once again call on Bakkies Botha, who seems to have regained the enthusiasm of his teen years while playing in France?
Fourie du Preez was typically influential in his five Tests last year and is surely the first-choice scrumhalf. Francois Hougaard was unimpressive when the Bulls were struggling overseas, but seems to be regaining some form in recent weeks.
Ruan Pienaar was nominated for the European Rugby Player of the Year award last month and will probably be the back-up to Du Preez.
Jean de Villiers was richly praised for both his captaincy and play at inside centre by Meyer last year, but the 2013 SA Rugby Player of the Year could be in for a move due to the return of Frans Steyn after a year of injuries.
Steyn was used exclusively in the number 12 jersey by Meyer in 2012 and it seems clear that Morne Steyn and Johan Goosen will be the Springbok flyhalves this year, so perhaps De Villiers will shift to outside centre to accommodate the 2007 World Cup winner and offer an exceptionally experienced midfield, even with Jaque Fourie likely to be out of action for the entire Test season with an ankle injury.
Willie le Roux looks set to continue as the Bok fullback, there being no other specialist contenders in the squad, while Sharks wing Lwazi Mvovo has deservedly been called up after an impressive SuperRugby campaign.
There is an abundance of outside-back talent for Meyer to choose from, with the classy JP Pietersen joined in the squad by Bulls talents JJ Engelbrecht and Jan Serfontein, the in-form De Allende and Juan de Jongh from the Stormers, Bjorn Basson, Cornal Hendricks and S’Bura Sithole.
Wing Bryan Habana, flank Francois Louw and scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar should all join the squad once they have been released from their European clubs, with prop Gurthro Steenkamp and lock Bakkies Botha also possibly on Meyer’s wish-list.
Where Meyer seems to be heading is the following final squad for the Incoming Series –
- Fullback: Willie le Roux
- Wings: JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana, Lwazi Mvovo, Bjorn Basson/Damian de Allende
- Centres: Jean de Villiers, Frans Steyn, Jan Serfontein, JJ Engelbrecht
- Flyhalves: Morne Steyn, Johan Goosen
- Scrumhalves: Fourie du Preez, Ruan Pienaar, Francois Hougaard
- Eighthman: Duane Vermeulen
- Loose forwards: Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Marcell Coetzee, Schalk Burger, Siya Kolisi
- Locks: Flip van der Merwe, Eben Etzebeth, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha/Lood de Jager
- Props: Jannie du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane, Frans Malherbe/Coenie Oosthuizen/Gurthro Steenkamp
- Hookers: Bismarck du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss
The players who can consider themselves unfortunate to have just missed out on the squad are Ryan Kankowski and Warren Whiteley, the form eighthmen in South Africa after Vermeulen, and Stormers loose forward Nizaam Carr, while Sharks scrumhalf Cobus Reinach and Bulls lock Paul Willemse are stars of the future whose time will surely come.
Springbok training squad: Willie le Roux, JP Pietersen, JJ Engelbrecht, Cornal Hendricks, S’Bura Sithole, Jean de Villiers, Jan Serfontein, Juan de Jongh, Frans Steyn, Damian de Allende, Lwazi Mvovo, Bjorn Basson, Johan Goosen, Marnitz Boshoff, Fourie du Preez, Francois Hougaard, Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts, Schalk Burger, Jacques du Plessis, Marcell Coetzee, Siya Kolisi, Heinrich Brussow, Flip van der Merwe, Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Teboho Mohoje, Jannie du Plessis, Frans Malherbe, Coenie Oosthuizen, Marcel van der Merwe, Bismarck du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane.