South African rugby players are normally like crayfish scrambling to get out of a bucket when it comes to fighting for a place in the Springbok squad in a World Cup year, which makes lock Flip van der Merwe’s decision to not make himself available for international rugby this year all the more inexplicable.
It’s unusual for South African rugby to be short of locks but Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer admitted on Monday that the second row is one of the areas he is most concerned about, Van der Merwe’s unavailability only making the situation worse.
Although Meyer revealed the Bulls lock’s shock decision, he was not at liberty to reveal the reasons for it, save that they are personal.
“Locks are a worry because you need specialists. If I had to pick the World Cup squad today we’d be in trouble – Eben Etzebeth has just recovered from injury and Pieter-Steph du Toit, Victor Matfield and Lood de Jager have all been injured recently as well,” Meyer said.
Having announced his decision to join French club Clermont at the end of this season, Van der Merwe has lost his Springbok contract, which could place him in the same awkward position as Francois Steyn when it comes to image rights.
Four of the six locks who attended the Springbok camp session at St Peter’s College on Monday have injury problems – Ruan Botha, De Jager, Du Toit and Matfield – and they largely sat out training.
While Meyer said centre (due to injuries) was also a worrying position, he said the toughest decisions he would have to make revolved around which loose forwards to take to the World Cup.
“The main difficulty is the loose forwards. We can only choose a 31-man squad and nine of those players have to be front-row forwards. So that means you either choose four locks and five loose-forwards, which most teams do, or three locks and six loose forwards.
“So I have to pick five players from 12-15 world-class loose forwards, which is going to be very difficult. Pierre Spies is a great player who’s been injured for two years so it’s been tough for him and he could still play better. There’s Jaco Kriel, who was brilliant against the Bulls, and Heinrich Brussow, so there’s a lot of competition. Willem Alberts has played two great games for the Sharks … “ Meyer explained.
The Springbok coach confirmed that he is likely to stick with the cadres he has been using for the last three years for the World Cup, although there is always room for the odd bolter to force his way into his plans this year.
“We’ve done a lot of research and spoken to the different coaches who have won the World Cup and the one thing they all say is to stick to what has worked for you. You don’t want to be too predictable though because the game changes every six months so you have to try new things, but you don’t want to change too much.
“Current form is important, but there are guys who have performed over several years, I’ve had three years to see how they perform under pressure. Test rugby is totally different to Super Rugby, especially in the Northern Hemisphere at the breakdowns and with the referees.
“I have some sort of idea of my first XV, but there are always guys who come in late, someone like Jesse Kriel is very close to selection. But it’s very difficult for players to peak from February to October, there are just too many games, and quality players don’t become bad overnight. There’s still time to get guys right, world-class players who have proven themselves …” Meyer said.
One of those players who will be given every opportunity to prove his fitness for the World Cup is captain Jean de Villiers, who has been laid low since November with a serious knee injury.
Team doctor Craig Roberts said De Villiers is “running very hard” at the moment and they are very happy with his progress.
Roberts added, however, that they are looking to provide some games for the centre to play before the World Cup in order to find his form and confidence.