Bismarck du Plessis will need to start playing like the beast of old if he is going to challenge the Springbok status quo, reports JON CARDINELLI in Johannesburg.
On Wednesday, Heyneke Meyer announced a team that strongly resembled the side that fronted Samoa on 23 June. Meyer opted to retain Adriaan Strauss at No 2 and Ruan Pienaar at No 9, despite having the experience and all-round excellence of Du Plessis and Fourie du Preez at his disposal.
Meyer told the media that it would be unfair to rush Du Preez, who has only recently returned to the Bok squad, straight back into the starting line-up. Du Preez last played for the Boks in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final against Australia.
Another reason why Du Preez wasn't considered to start is down to his availability. He will be released only for the Boks' home Tests in the Castle Rugby Championship and will miss the three Tests in Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand.
Nevertheless, you get the impression that Du Preez is in Meyer's long-term plans. And when you have a player of Du Preez's quality in your ranks, you don't keep him on the bench for long.
Pienaar will need to play out of his skin this weekend, and in the three games that follow, to convince Meyer that he deserves the No 9 jersey on a more permament basis. It's a great situation for South African rugby as the team will need two strong and experienced scrumhalves going forward.
Meyer said that he wanted continuity and that Pienaar and Strauss would provide that after they started two and three Tests respectively in the recent quadrangular series played in June. While the coach has described Pienaar as first-choice, this statement may as well have been accompanied by an asterisk. Pienaar is first-choice... for now.
Du Preez was the best player in the world when he was in his prime, and unrivalled in that crucial scrumhalf position. In 2011, Du Plessis was another who had no peer, and it remains one of the great tragedies that he was never completely unleashed at the World Cup in New Zealand.
He has battled with injuries since that global tournament and has failed to recapture the same sort of form. Coming back from his latest injury, he has been introduced gradually in order to build up some form and confidence. But at this stage, he is still second to Strauss.
The competition for places will please Meyer, who has made it clear that he wants to build a strong squad rather than just a strong starting XV. For Du Plessis, who has always strived to be the best, the next few months will be crucial in terms of establishing exactly who is boss in that No 2 position.
The problem he faces is that Strauss is a bloody good player; in fact, the best South African player on show in the recent Super Rugby tournament.
It could be that fatigue finally catches up with Strauss (he played the bulk of the Cheetahs' matches and started all three Tests in June). But Du Plessis shouldn't count on it. He should prepare to force his way back into the starting side through sheer weight of performance.
Photo: Barry Aldworth/Backpagepix
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