Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has missed a trick with his decision to bench Willem Alberts, writes JON CARDINELLI in London.
Meyer has made two changes to his starting side ahead of South Africa’s final pool match against the USA. Both are injury-enforced, with Frans Malherbe replacing Jannie du Plessis at tighthead prop and Lwazi Mvovo coming in for JP Pietersen on the wing.
It would have been interesting to see who Meyer would have backed if both Malherbe and Du Plessis were available. The former has looked far more impressive and influential than the latter in recent weeks. Indeed, after Du Plessis conceded a yellow card in the match against Scotland last Saturday, Meyer hinted that the veteran prop was on thin ice.
Malherbe deserves this opportunity to start, as does Mvovo. The real question is why Meyer hasn’t made more changes to his starting lineup.
However, as Meyer pointed out at the team announcement in Teddington on Monday, there are players in the Boks’ first-choice side who are still short on game time. Several combinations need more time to click, and will benefit from a further opportunity before the play-offs.
Duane Vermeulen has played two games in the past three months. Fourie du Preez looked good in the matches against Samoa and Scotland, but what many forget is that he hasn’t played a lot of rugby this season.
Handré Pollard has established himself as the Boks’ first-choice flyhalf, but has started alongside Du Preez on just three occasions in the past two years. That 9-10-12-13 combination also needs more time to gel, not just on attack, but on defence.
It makes sense to back those players in this final pool match. What doesn’t make sense is the decision to keep Alberts on the bench.
In 2013, Alberts started every Rugby Championship Test as well as every match on the end-of-year tour. He made some influential contributions as a ground-gaining ball-carrier and momentum-stopping defender.
With Alberts leading the physical charge, the Boks won the battle at the gainline more often than not. They won seven of those nine Tests. In 2013, Alberts was the best blindside flank in the world.
Injuries have limited his impact in subsequent seasons. He played 63 minutes against Argentina this past August, and 10 minutes (off the bench) against Scotland last week. Surely he needs to play as much as possible before the play-offs? Why then isn’t he starting against USA this Wednesday?
Schalk Burger is playing some excellent rugby at the moment, and is deserving of his starting place in the first-choice lineup. And yet, injuries are an unfortunate reality in Test rugby. If Burger breaks down at some point over the course of the play-offs, Alberts must be ready to step in.
On Monday, Meyer provided a reason for selecting Burger ahead of Alberts. It made sense in terms of what Burger brings to the pack as a leader now that Victor Matfield is unavailable. However, it made little sense with regard to getting Alberts up to speed before the play-offs.
‘We had planned to start Willem in this game, but then we lost two leaders in Jean de Villiers and Victor Matfield to injuries,’ said Meyer. ‘Fourie did a good job as captain last week, but I feel we need an experienced leader in the forwards to lend him support. Schalk is there to help Fourie.’
The Boks will look to inflict as much damage as possible in the first 40 minutes of Wednesday’s clash. Once the result is secured, Meyer should make wholesale changes in the second stanza.
Rudy Paige is set to win his first Test cap. On the other end of the scale, Morné Steyn will play his first Test since the 2014 Rugby Championship match in Brisbane. Meyer needs to give these players game time before the play-offs.
One would hope that Alberts receives at least 40 minutes of play. The Boks need Alberts to find form before the play-offs. While they have a quality blindside flanker in Burger, they may need two strong options to maintain their effort over the course of the knockouts.
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