Heyneke Meyer has to back Bismarck du Plessis and indeed his best available match 23 for the crucial Pool B clash against Scotland, writes JON CARDINELLI in Newcastle.
This time last week, the Boks were in a hole. In the wake of the inexplicable defeat to Japan, the abuse by the South African public was unrelenting and the media’s criticism was unfailingly harsh.
The senior players and coaches had an honest and brutal discussion a few days later. Many of those coaches and players have subsequently described the short period in Birmingham as the most turbulent and testing of their respective careers.
Newcastle, however, has been kinder than Birmingham. The Boks are staying at a plush hotel that overlooks the Gateshead Quay. The sunny weather over the past few days has been an absolute treat. The mood has improved since the 46-6 win against Samoa.
All the questions that followed the Japan defeat have been answered. All but one.
Jean de Villiers was backed following the 34-32 loss to Japan. So too Victor Matfield and several others. The only senior player to be dropped – and not just from the starting side, but from the entire match-day squad – was Bismarck du Plessis.
Publicly, Meyer explained that it was always the plan to rotate Du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss over the course of the campaign. Privately, I’ve heard it said that Du Plessis conceded too many penalties in that game against Japan, and the coaches considered it a risk to back him in a volatile contest against Samoa.
All of which is nonsense. At his best, Du Plessis is the standout hooker in the world and one of the most influential players in the world. Peter de Villiers made the mistake of benching Du Plessis in the big games of the 2011 World Cup, and Meyer is making a mistake in excluding Du Plessis from the crunch clashes of the 2015 tournament.
The Boks held their first field session of the week at the Gateshead Stadium on Tuesday afternoon. It was interesting to note that hooker Strauss trained with the starting XV.
The Boks need to beat Scotland on Saturday to secure a spot in the play-offs. Meyer has spoken about the next two pool matches as finals. Why then would he sheath one of his greatest weapons? Why would he not start Du Plessis?
This match will tell us about where the Boks are as a collective. The defeat to Japan was a shock. The win against Samoa was expected. This week, the Boks will face their only tier-one opponent of the pool stage.
Surely they should be fielding their strongest possible combination? Meyer shouldn’t be holding anything back. The team that starts this Saturday should be the same team that starts a potential World Cup final.
The selection at hooker aside, Meyer looks set to pick his strongest possible team. The Bok coach will be monitoring the progress of Victor Matfield at training later today. If Matfield, who is currently nursing a hamstring injury, comes through the session, he will start at No 5 and assume the captaincy.
Matifeld did not take part in Tuesday’s session in Gateshead. Lood de Jager trained with the starting XV at No 5.
Willem Alberts, Jannie du Plessis and Schalk Burger didn’t participate in all of the contact drills. The good news is that Alberts, who is yet to play a minute of this campaign, took part in the scrum session.
Burger, who seemed to be nursing his shoulder, was managed over the course of the practice, but should be alright to start. If Matfield’s situation doesn’t improve, Burger may well lead the side from No 7 position. Alberts could make his return from the bench.
Damian de Allende alternated with Jan Serfontein at No 12 over the course of the session. It is hoped that De Allende, who picked up a knee injury against Samoa, will take more contact at Wednesday’s practice in Gateshead. The Stormers centre ran with the team on Tuesday but did not look comfortable.
Scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, who sustained a minor rib injury against Samoa, looked good throughout training and is expected to be fit for the game against Scotland.
The biggest selection, however, could be at No 2. Meyer needs to reconsider his position on Du Plessis, a player who could be an asset to the Boks at the breakdowns and scrums this Saturday.
Probable Boks vs Scotland – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende/Jan Serfontein, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Victor Matfield/Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 De Jager/Pieter-Steph du Toit, 20 Willem Alberts, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Pat Lambie, 23 Jan Serfontein/Lwazi Mvovo.
Photo: Steve Bardens/Getty Images