Uncertainty over the Springboks’ best backline composition has been a recipe for disaster, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Among the backs, Bryan Habana is probably the only assured starter, and even then he is eight years on from when he was performing at his peak at the 2007 World Cup.
At scrumhalf, Heyneke Meyer has been unable to find a truly world-class general throughout his tenure, and has held on to the hope that Fourie du Preez would finally pull through for him.
Du Preez did make a difference when he replaced the pedestrian Ruan Pienaar against Japan on Saturday, but it remains a massive ask for the 33-year-old to now take over the No 9 mantle he hasn’t consistently held for the last four years.
Similarly, Meyer has failed to settle on his first-choice flyhalf. Morné Steyn fell out of favour last year, and Handré Pollard was predominantly backed at No 10 as the Boks briefly flirted with the possibility of a more direct, ball-in-hand style of play.
Pollard started all three Tests in this year’s Rugby Championship, but Pat Lambie got a chance against Argentina in Buenos Aires, and did enough to retain the No 10 jersey for the Boks’ World Cup opener.
When speaking to coaches and rugby pundits over the years, there often seem to be consensus that a settled, confident and composed halfback combination is needed to be successful at a World Cup.
Yet, at the start of this World Cup, it’s pretty clear that there's no certainty over the Boks’ best 9-10 combination. And this at a tournament where tactical play, and accurate goal-kicking, is of the utmost importance.
The situation in the midfield has also been about as clear as mud since the beginning of last season.
The fall-out with Frans Steyn caused much uncertainty, and his recall this year after an extended period in the international wilderness sent out a confusing message. Then there was the case of Jaque Fourie, who retired, was then talked out of it and, ultimately, deemed surplus to requirements.
Jean de Villiers’s horror injury at the end of last year further complicated the midfield matter, and in this regard I do feel for the Bok coach and captain, who knew the value that could be added to the World Cup cause should he be able to find his form and fitness of old. By all accounts, though, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel were a revelation this season, but the latter is still learning the trade at outside centre, and then just as he was finding his feet, he was moved to the wing against Argentina in Durban as De Villiers made his return. Yet it was De Allende, a man who had started every Test of 2015 at inside centre, who found himself omitted from the match-day squad against Japan.
At wing, JP Pietersen’s untimely injury has also created further uncertainty. The experienced Bok would have been expected to be the first-choice right wing at the World Cup, but he’s battled with form and fitness at various times this year, and spent much of the Super Rugby season at outside centre.
And so it’s transpired that a different player has featured on the right wing in each Test before the World Cup: Cornal Hendricks, Pietersen, Kriel and Lwazi Mvovo.
Then, we come to fullback. Willie le Roux has been the man Meyer has almost solely backed since his debut in 2013, with the mercurial playmaker starting in all but one of his 28 Tests over the last three seasons.
Yet an injury allowed Zane Kirchner to come out of the cold to start in Buenos Aires, and then rather bizarrely hang on to the No 15 jersey for the World Cup opener, while Le Roux watched from the stands.
It may be too little, too late, but the Boks do have three more games in the pool stages to settle on their best backline, and it simply must remain unchanged for the remainder of the tournament. The time for chopping, changing and providing chances is over. In fact, it has been for some time.