For all the talk of a dark injury cloud hanging over South African rugby, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has still been able to name a squad full of exciting young talent for the quadrangular series that starts next weekend against Italy, Scotland and Samoa.
Saturday night might be all right for fighting, but Meyer’s announcement of his new 34-man squad at Newlands was met with far less criticism than much of what he did last year.
Perhaps it’s because Meyer has shown a flexibility and daring that did not seem to be part of his character during his safety-first initial year in charge.
The most obvious sign of this is the selection of Willie le Roux, the ultimate anti-structure player, someone who wears an 11 on his back for the Cheetahs but roams all over the field.
Le Roux is the epitome of the rugby gambler, he’s always looking first for the opportunity to try something attacking, and kicking, although a skill of his, is definitely a last-ditch option.
While Meyer has grasped the nettle and chosen the man who is the Cheetahs’ creative force, he seems a little nervous about what he might have unleashed upon his carefully structured team and admitted that he has had discussions with Le Roux about playing the percentages better.
“I had a great chat with Willie at the training camp. He brings the X-factor that you need at times, but there’s a fine line in Test rugby. You can bring the X-factor but you mustn’t give up tries because there’s an average difference of one try per game in Tests,” Meyer said.
The uncapped Le Roux is likely to be used at fullback, where Meyer’s resources have been plundered by injuries to JP Pietersen, Frans Steyn, Jaco Taute and Zane Kirchner, who is in the squad but unlikely to play until the final match.
“I’m going to look at playing Willie at 15, I love it when a fullback comes in behind the flyhalf like he does for the Cheetahs. We want to improve on attack and score more tries.
“I was very worried about fullback, but now we have options and I will definitely consider Pat Lambie and Gio Aplon there as well,” Meyer said.
Le Roux has skills that are normally seen only once in a blue moon on a rugby field, so even if Meyer involves him off the bench, he is going to bring a different dimension, and most notably more vision, to the Springbok backline.
It is pleasing as well to see some fresh blood introduced into the loose forward stocks in the form of Lappies Labuschagne and Siya Kolisi, both of whom have had major impacts in SuperRugby, for the Cheetahs and Stormers respectively.
While it is highly likely Francois Louw, Willem Alberts and Pierre Spies will form the starting loose trio, it is also probable that one of the uncapped trio of Labuschagne, Kolisi or Arno Botha will win a place on the bench alongside Marcell Coetzee.
The presence of utility backs such as Ruan Pienaar, Le Roux, JJ Engelbrecht, Lambie and Francois Hougaard in the squad means Meyer should be able to use a 6-2 split on the bench, with an entire front row now required due to the new IRB regulations.
It will be a daunting task for any team to front up to the big hits that Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss, Eben Etzebeth, Alberts, Spies, Tendai Mtawarira, Flip van der Merwe, Coetzee, Labuschagne, Kolisi and Botha routinely dish up. It is also what the Bulls have based their game plan on, and they are the in-form team in SuperRugby at the moment.
Saturday night’s squad announcement also tees up centre Jan Serfontein, loosehead prop Trevor Nyakane, scrumhalf Jano Vermaak, lock Pieter-Steph du Toit and tighthead prop Lourens Adriaanse for a Test debut over the next three weeks.
Jean de Villiers has been confirmed as the captain so he will either play at number 12 or number 13. If he plays at 13 – and the only other options are Engelbrecht and Juan de Jongh, who is still recovering from injury – then Serfontein is a shoe-in at inside centre.
He may only be 20 years old, but Serfontein has already stamped his presence in the Bulls’ midfield and he is a powerful, as well as dynamic, attacking force.
Meyer said he was delighted to be able to pick such talented youngsters.
“A lot of great, experienced Springboks are not in the squad, but I’m very happy to be able to pick these youngsters after very good SuperRugby form. We have to give players chances so that we prepare for the Rugby Championship, but still pick our best side for every Test. It’s about winning and being humble and not underestimating the opposition. But a couple of these youngsters deserve a start,” Meyer said.
Meyer said he had chosen an expanded squad of 34 players in order to prepare for the Rugby Championship against Southern Hemisphere rivals New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, which explains the presence of Bismarck du Plessis, De Jongh and Kirchner, all of whom have played next to no rugby in recent weeks and can’t realistically be expected to come straight back at Test level.
The Springbok coach said he aimed to back experience while still giving youth its head.
“This series is part of our preparation for the Rugby Championship, so I won’t be picking a different side every week. There will be new caps and it is a very young squad. But I also need to give players lots of Tests so they can reach 30 or 40 by the World Cup, so it’s a catch-22.
“I’ll probably go with experience to start, but with youngsters coming off the bench. I am loyal to performance and we’re going to have some great players in future,” Meyer said.
And he can say that again.
Squad: Willie le Roux, Gio Aplon, Zane Kirchner, Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers, JJ Engelbrecht, Juan de Jongh, Jan Serfontein, Bjorn Basson, Lwazi Mvovo, Morné Steyn, Pat Lambie, Ruan Pienaar, Francois Hougaard, Jano Vermaak, Pierre Spies, Arno Botha, Willem Alberts, Lappies Labuschagné, Francois Louw, Marcell Coetzee, Siya Kolisi, Juandré Kruger, Eben Etzebeth, Flip van der Merwe, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jannie du Plessis, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Bismarck du Plessis, Coenie Oosthuizen, Tendai Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane.