Returning stars as well as the fringe players hoping to nail down a place in the 31-man World Cup squad will have plenty to prove over the next fortnight, writes JON CARDINELLI.
In four weeks, we will know exactly whom is travelling to England to represent the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup. While there could be one or two surprise selections in that group of 31, one gets the feeling that, if all the stars are fit, the starting XV will read as such:
Willie le Roux, JP Pietersen, Jean de Villiers, Frans Steyn, Bryan Habana, Handré Pollard, Fourie du Preez, Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira.
Of course, there are several players in that preferred starting side who are either still in doubt for the tournament, or haven’t played a lot of rugby this year.
Vermeulen won’t be risked in the Boks’ last two matches before the World Cup due to a neck injury. It seems likely the No 8, who's considered a vital part of the game plan, will travel to the World Cup. Vermeulen is the only player who will be given the chance to prove his fitness at the tournament itself.
For the rest of the returnees, these next two games against Argentina will be crucial. Jean de Villiers, Frans Steyn, Fourie du Preez, and Willem Alberts have proved their value in recent seasons, particularly in Tests played in the northern hemisphere. They now need to prove they are over their respective injuries, and that they are getting back to their best.
Taking one player of dubious fitness (Vermeulen) to the World Cup is a gamble enough. Heyneke Meyer can’t afford to take two or three of these players to England this September.
The absence of such players in the first two rounds of the Rugby Championship has allowed Meyer to experiment, and ultimately plan, for life without them. The Bok coach would have been pleased with some of the results.
Centres Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel have powered their way into World Cup squad contention. Schalk Burger is another who made a statement with strong performances against the Wallabies and All Blacks. If one of Alberts or Vermeulen is unavailable, Burger can do a job at either blindside flank or No 8.
Francois Louw sustained a shoulder injury in the recent defeat to the All Blacks. This means that Heinrich Brüssow is likely to get an extended run at openside flank over the next two weeks. Brüssow has the chance to strengthen his claim for World Cup squad inclusion.
It’s been reported that Morné Steyn is set for a start at No 10 in the next fortnight. While Meyer has been pleased with Pollard’s progress in that position of responsibility, he has often spoken about Steyn’s value as a tactical- and goal-kicker.
Earlier this year, Steyn booted Stade Français to the Top 14 title. When Steyn is in form, he is an asset to any team. Pollard may travel to the World Cup as the first-choice flyhalf, but don’t be surprised if Meyer includes Steyn on the bench in the big games.
Pat Lambie battled with a neck injury in the recent Vodacom Super Rugby tournament. He has been phased back into international rugby from the bench. Meyer has used Lambie as a fullback option in recent weeks, which suggests Lambie is being viewed as a utility player ahead of the World Cup.
It will be interesting to see how Meyer manages the rest of his squad over the next two weeks. One would presume the tight five that fronted against the Wallabies and All Blacks, the Boks’ first-choice tight five, will be wrapped in cotton wool with a view to the World Cup. There should be opportunities for Adriaan Strauss, who's looking for form, and Schalk Brits, who's simply looking for any opportunity. Locks Flip van der Merwe and the returning Pieter-Steph du Toit also need to play if they are going to be considered for the global tournament.
The Boks can’t win the Rugby Championship from here, but they can still win the World Cup. The two Tests against Argentina should provide Meyer with a few more answers regarding his final 31-man squad.
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