The Springboks will go into their quadrangular series final against the physical Samoans with two number-four locks in partnership in the middle row, after coach Heyneke Meyer named Flip van der Merwe in the number-five jersey on Wednesday.
Van der Merwe replaces his Bulls partner Juandre Kruger, a more traditional number-five lock, and Meyer said the reason for the change was because “I want to see if Eben and Flip can play together because we’re very thin at number five.”
Kruger, who was a mobile presence last weekend against Scotland, is of course off to chase the euro in France later this year, so that might also have something to do with Meyer’s decision.
Franco van der Merwe, who has run the Sharks lineout with aplomb this year, is also in the squad and if Meyer was really desperate to test his depth at number five, he would surely have given the experienced former Lions star a run.
It seems probable that the real reason for Flip van der Merwe’s selection is that Meyer wants to target the collisions, where Scotland showed them up last weekend, against a team that is especially combative and has great physical presence in that area. If the Springboks lose the collisions, then they could be condemned to chasing after the ball against a side that thrives on running rugby when they’re on the front foot.
The 28-year-old may not have played in the middle of the lineout since his junior days, but he was unfazed by the switch.
“I’ll be doing the same work at lineout time, it doesn’t matter if you’re four or five, it’s just a different number on your back. The breakdown will also be very important and we’re working hard on trying to improve that,” Flip van der Merwe said.
There are potentially two changes to the loose trio as well, with Marcell Coetzee making way for Francois Louw on the open side and Willem Alberts set to return on the blind side. The Sharks battering ram has been bracketed with Siya Kolisi, who really took his chance to shine last week in Nelspruit, but the medical staff are confident Alberts will be fit to play, meaning the Stormers rookie will start on the bench again.
While Alberts will add even more oomph to the Springboks when it comes to the collisions, the way Louw is able to read and adapt to referee’s interpretations when it comes to turnover ball, means South Africa should be much more effective at the breakdowns than they were last weekend against Scotland.
“Scotland deserve a lot of credit for playing on the off-sides line, but Francois Louw has much more knowledge of Northern Hemisphere referees and he is a recognised open-side flank. When he came into the team last year, suddenly he brought something different to our game in terms of ball-stealing. He’s used to those Northern Hemisphere interpretations and he shows how to adapt to the referee,” Meyer said.
The all-round contribution of Louw also extends to ball-carrying and lineout work, where the Springboks should dominate the Samoans even without a specialist number five jumper.
The scrums are the one set-piece where Samoa have improved tremendously in recent times and the 120kg bulk of Van der Merwe in the second row will obviously help the Springbok scrum.
The fitness of Jean de Villiers is still not certain and he has been bracketed at inside centre with Jan Serfontein, with hooker Adriaan Strauss set to take over the reins if necessary and become the 55th Test captain of the Springboks.
“Jean has had a scan of his sternum and there’s nothing torn or broken and he’s feeling much better today. There’s not as much pain or discomfort,” Meyer said.
Wednesday’s selection means Meyer has used just 27 players (28 if De Villiers is unavailable and Juan de Jongh gets game time) through the three-match series, but the Springbok coach said he was happy with the amount of experimentation he has done ahead of the Rugby Championship.
“I feel I’ve played a lot of new guys. I’ve stuck with Willie le Roux when I could have played Zane Kirchner, there’s JJ Engelbrecht and Jano Vermaak, Bjorn Basson had never started for me before, Siya Kolisi, Arno Botha, Trevor Nyakane, Coenie Oosthuizen earned just his second cap, Piet van Zyl and Jan Serfontein. I know what the rest of the players can do from the end-of-year tour and I feel like we now have a good squad of 30 players,” Meyer said.
Team: 15-Willie le Roux, 14-Bryan Habana, 13-JJ Engelbrecht, 12-Jean de Villiers/Jan Serfontein, 11-Bjorn Basson, 10-Morne Steyn, 9-Ruan Pienaar, 8-Pierre Spies, 7-Willem Alberts/Siya Kolisi, 6-Francois Louw, 5-Flip van der Merwe, 4-Eben Etzebeth, 3-Jannie du Plessis, 2-Adriaan Strauss, 1-Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16-Bismarck du Plessis, 17-Trevor Nyakane, 18-Coenie Oosthuizen, 19-Juandre Kruger, 20-Siya Kolisi/Marcell Coetzee, 21-Piet van Zyl, 22-Pat Lambie, 23-Jan Serfontein/Juan de Jongh.