According to Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, he has been wanting to choose Heinrich Brussow ever since he started playing in Japan and regained his pace of old, but his selection was delayed by long-term injuries.
Brussow was the surprise selection in the Springbok team announced to play the All Blacks at Ellis Park on Saturday, earning his first Test cap under Meyer and ending a four-year spell in the international wilderness as he joins Francois Louw in a loose trio featuring two specialist openside flanks.
“I have a lot of respect for Heinrich, there has been a lot of speculation that there is bad blood between us but that’s certainly not the case. There’s been a lot of communication between us, he knew where he stood and he has worked hard.
“He had two bad injuries and I believe he lost a bit of pace because of them, and then he tried to get too big and gained weight. But since playing in Japan, where the game is quicker, Heinrich has got his speed back, which is what you need as an openside.
“He has a very good record against the All Blacks [having been on the winning side in all four previous appearances against them] and I believe it’s the right game to give him a go, he deserves that.
“I’m going with two opensides because I believe the battle will be won on the ground on Saturday and the All Blacks have one of the best opensides in the world in Richie McCaw. One of the main things for the openside is also to secure your own ball and Heinrich has worked on that as well,” Meyer said.
Brussow described his game as having become more “clinical” since his last appearance for the Springboks, limping off early in the bitterly disappointing 2011 World Cup quarterfinal against Australia, which would have been a very sad end to a career in which he had won 14 of the previous 19 Tests he had played in.
“It’s a few years ago that I last played for the Springboks and I’m more experienced now, I think I make better decisions on which rucks to chase. I’ve become more clinical as the laws have changed and I’ve had to adapt.
“It was a different experience playing in Japan but I wanted to try new things and their game plan over there is really quick. I have a good relationship with Heyneke, I always knew where I stood so I kept positive and working hard. But then when I was close to selection, injuries came my way,” the man who turned 29 on Tuesday said.
The selection of two fetchers is a dramatic change in direction for Meyer, who has made his love for big ball-carriers and lineout options in the loose trio very clear, but Brussow said his job will be made easier by having Louw alongside him.
“I played with another openside flank at the Cheetahs because we did not always have big loose forwards, we often played with two fetchers. It makes it easier, you can make better decisions and support each other.
“But it’s going to be a big challenge against the All Blacks, any game against them is tough, but you have to beat the best to be the best. Richie McCaw speaks for himself, but with Liam Messam, Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino, that’s the best loose trio in the world, they’re playing well and in form,” Brussow said.
The other main feature of the Springbok selection is a new-look bench, with Vincent Koch set to make his Test debut. Flip van der Merwe will bring his experience upon his return from his self-imposed exile, while Lionel Mapoe could also play his first match in the Green and Gold.
Cornal Hendricks was originally named on the bench, but then wing JP Pietersen strained his hamstring in training, allowing the Cheetahs flyer to move up to the starting line-up and giving Mapoe his call-up as wing/outside centre cover, just like the veteran Sharks player.
Warren Whiteley is the reserve loose forward and will surely come on in front of his adoring home crowd for his first home Test, Meyer saying his abilities in the lineout and in open play would be valuable in the final quarter.
Meyer’s use of the bench in the last-minute loss to Australia in Brisbane last weekend was criticised, but the coach defended his tactics, saying he was in a no-win situation.
“I was in a lose/lose situation because we have so many injuries and I’m trying to bring players back for the World Cup. And then Victor Matfield and Marcell Coetzee went off and Jannie du Plessis also got injured.
“People say players are over the hill and ready for retirement, and then when I substitute them they say that was wrong too. We didn’t lose because of the replacements, we lost because we made mistakes. The big difference is my teams play, whereas those of the kenners [experts] don’t!” Meyer said.
The Springbok coach will certainly make changes in the final quarter again, however, because he expects a late surge from the superbly fit All Blacks.
“Last year at Ellis Park we made a great start against them but then they came back. In their last 60 matches, most of them have been won in the final 20 minutes because their fitness is superior.
“So we need fresh guys coming off the bench, I expect an open, running game from the All Blacks in the last 15 minutes, they’ll play at a very high tempo, which is one thing we’re not very good at presently,” Meyer said.
Hearing Meyer call for improvement in the tempo at which the Springboks play may surprise the public, but his loose trio selection is a genuine shock. Instead of playing two fetchers, Meyer could have used captain Schalk Burger as a ball-carrier, Whiteley starting at eighthman, or even Teboho Mohoje or Siya Kolisi as blindside flanks.
“We pride ourselves in having one or two big ball-carriers who can get over the gain-line and also stop the opposition’s momentum. It’s a problem at this stage and you don’t want to use half-measures, there’s simply no-one standing at the moment who can do that.
“So we have to change our game plan. Games against the All Blacks are always lost or won at the breakdown, they thrive on quick ball, especially at the end of the game,” Meyer explained.
The life of a Springbok coach is never simple and Meyer knows he will face a backlash from his transformation critics over Mohoje and Kolisi being leapfrogged, but he is selecting with half-an-eye on the World Cup and measuring potential players under pressure.
That’s also why Hendricks has returned, why Brussow has been given another life in international rugby and why there has been so much rotation on the bench.
Springbok team: 15-Willie le Roux, 14-Cornal Hendricks, 13-Jesse Kriel, 12-Damian de Allende, 11-Bryan Habana, 10-Handre Pollard, 9-Ruan Pienaar, 8-Schalk Burger, 7-Francois Louw, 6-Heinrich Brussow, 5-Lood de Jager, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Jannie du Plessis, 2-Bismarck du Plessis, 1-Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements – 16-Trevor Nyakane, 17-Adriaan Strauss, 18-Vincent Koch, 19-Flip van der Merwe, 20-Warren Whiteley, 21-Cobus Reinach, 22-Pat Lambie, 23-Lionel Mapoe.