Bok title hopes hinge on Pienaar

The Springboks need Ruan Pienaar to fill the void left by Fourie du Preez, and remain fit, for the duration of the Rugby Championship, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The Boks’ resounding 55-6 win against Scotland on 29 June came at too great a cost. Du Preez was forced to leave the field with a serious ankle injury, and it’s been subsequently confirmed that he will not play again this season.

This injury has not only robbed the Boks of a master tactician, but left the team with only one versatile scrumhalf option on the eve of the Rugby Championship. The Bok squad announcement on Saturday has only confirmed the fact.

Meyer has picked Pienaar, Francois Hougaard and the uncapped Cobus Reinach as his three scrumhalves. Of the three, Pienaar is the only established player, and of the three, Pienaar is the only option who can kick as well as he passes.

There was talk of Louis Schreuder getting a look in for this series, as Meyer has always been a fan of the Stormers No 9. Piet van Zyl may have been a strong option, given he has played for the Boks before and he has found form during the latter stages of the Super Rugby competition. It seems certain that Rory Kockott will pursue the option of playing for France.

The selection of Pienaar was a no-brainer. He was Meyer’s first-choice scrumhalf in 2012, and started in some big games in 2013 that the Boks went on to win (the clashes in Brisbane and Paris, to name two).

Hougaard’s selection must be down to the player's experience. Reinach’s is down to form, in the context that he did well for South Africa’s best-performing Super Rugby side, the Sharks, over the course of the recent campaign.

But is it the right decision in the context of the challenges to come in the Rugby Championship? Indeed, while Hougaard and Reinach both have some potentially game-breaking attacking skills, they both lack the tactical kicking game that is required of a Test scrumhalf.

Hougaard has failed so many times in this regard, both at Super Rugby and Test level. It’s been frustrating to watch. He is too good a player to waste, and can be of value in a different role.

He was at his best for the Bulls this past season when he shifted to the wing. JP Pietersen will miss most of the coming Rugby Championship due to club commitments in Japan, and it would be great to see Hougaard receiving game time in that wing position.

Reinach’s speed and vision has proved an asset to the Sharks this season. That said, his substandard kicking game and at times erratic decision-making cost the Durban side in some big matches.

Perhaps Hougaard and Reinach will add value to the Boks as impact players from the bench. They both thrive in a looser contest, and may prove effective in the final quarter of a Test.

The problem arises, however, when one of Hougaard or Reinach is forced to start. If Pienaar goes down with an injury, the Boks will be in trouble. The All Blacks have an excellent kicking game. If Pienaar misses even one of those clashes in Wellington or Johannesburg, the Boks may struggle to match the Kiwis in that facet.

Pienaar is the one player who Meyer cannot afford to lose. There is suitable cover in every other position.

It was a big call to include Handré Pollard ahead of Johan Goosen, but a fair one.

Morné Steyn and Pat Lambie offer the Boks a variety of options, as well as experience, in that No 10 position. Both Pollard and Goosen have a bright future with the Boks, but at this point, there is room for only one of the promising youngsters. Unsurprisingly, Meyer has favoured the South Africa-based Pollard, who is in good form, over the France-bound Goosen, who has battled with fitness and consistency over the past season or so.

Siya Kolisi’s omission is equally unsurprising. Francois Louw remains the openside flank incumbent, and at the end of last year, Kolisi and Marcell Coetzee were neck and neck in the race to be his permanent understudy. Coetzee has cracked on in a big way in 2014, while Kolisi has fallen behind.

Fifteen players won't win the Rugby Championship. There will be injuries over the course of the next few months, and second-choice players such as Coetzee may be expected to contribute.

While there is now more confidence in Coetzee producing a game-shaping display in that openside position, the same cannot be said of Hougaard and Reinach. It's for this reason that Meyer will be hoping that Pienaar remains fit and available for the next six games.

Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli