The Springboks’ loose forward situation has been complicated by Willem Alberts’ injury situation, which is more serious than first thought. JON CARDINELLI reports.
On Monday, the Bok management team reported that Alberts was battling with an ankle injury and would not be available until the end of July. However, that comeback has been pushed back to early August, and that is being optimistic.
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer is a worried man. Duane Vermeulen underwent neck surgery on Wednesday morning. While the star No 8 won’t be available for the five games leading up to the World Cup, there is a chance that he will be fit for the tournament itself.
Alberts appears to be in the same category. Nothing has been confirmed, but the chances of him playing for the Boks before the global tournament are slim.
Meyer said that the blindside flanker is struggling with as many as three injuries. The Bok management are reluctant to push Alberts too hard at this stage, as they don’t want to aggravate existing back and knee niggles, as well as the ankle problem he sustained more recently.
Losing Vermeulen would be a big blow to South Africa’s World Cup prospects. Losing both Vermeulen and Alberts would be a disaster.
‘Willem is in a race against time,’ said Meyer. ‘We initially hoped to get him back for the All Blacks Test, but things haven’t gone well this week. We will take him out of general training and place him on a conditioning programme.
‘We don’t want to risk him, because it seems the more effort he puts in, the more he gets injured. It's the way he plays.
'He’s played a lot of rugby [for the Sharks] this year,' Meyer continued, alluding to the gripe about how the top South African players have been managed by the franchises in 2015. 'We would love for him to play in the Rugby Championship, but we need to look at the World Cup as a priority. We need to box smart and try to get Willem ready.’
What this means is that the Boks are unlikely to field their first-choice blindside flanker over the course of the Rugby Championship. Meyer said that with Vermeulen and Alberts out, the Boks will also be down to their third-choice No 8. Alberts was being considered as a strong alternative to Vermeulen at No 8 in the lead-up to the World Cup.
The Bok coach intimated that Warren Whiteley will be backed in that position over the next few games. Schalk Burger only recently recovered from a groin injury, and the Bok management is wary of pushing the Stormers loose forward too far too soon. And yet Meyer may have to consider Burger at No 8 sooner rather than later.
‘Schalk is not the classic No 8, but with Duane and Willem injured, he will be an option,’ he said. ‘I may even have to bring another No 8 into the squad if there is another injury.
‘I feel that was our best combo [Francois Louw, Alberts and Vermeulen] especially in the northern hemisphere conditions. We’ve lost two big ball carriers in Willem and Duane. So we have to select a combo that plays more to the ball [for the game against the World XV this Saturday].’
Meyer confirmed that another injury to either Whiteley or Burger will prompt a call for reinforcements. Pierre Spies is a possible option at No 8, while Jacques Potgieter and Arno Botha could cover blindside flank.
‘We have looked at those players,’ said Meyer. ‘Jacques is a very strong ball-carrier and has been in great form. Pierre always plays well for the Boks, and Arno was looking great before he was struck down by injury.’
Photo: Andrew Cornaga/Photosport