Wales will be weaker for the loss of Leigh Halfpenny. Similarly, the Springboks’ World Cup campaign will suffer if they lose Victor Matfield in the lead-up to the play-offs, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Fate has dealt Wales a cruel hand on the eve of the World Cup. Halfpenny, the Dragons’ star fullback and goal-kicker, has sustained a knee injury that will sideline him for the better part of six months.
If the Welsh media’s immediate reaction is any indicator, Halfpenny was the one man Wales could not afford to lose. ‘Wales face up to worst possible news,’ barked the headline of the lead story on Walesonline. It’s hardly hyperbole when one considers Halfpenny’s match-winning performances for Wales and the British & Irish Lions over the years.
Indeed, South African fans will remember – and perhaps may want to forget – what transpired at the Millennium Stadium last November. Halfpenny kicked four penalties to guide Wales to just their second-ever win against the Boks.
But now, with Halfpenny no longer in the equation, Wales look a less threatening World Cup prospect. The news of Halfpenny’s injury would have boosted the confidence of Australia, England, Fiji and Uruguay (Wales’ opponents in Pool A). Even the Boks, who may face Wales in the quarter-finals if both teams advance, will feel that they have one thing less to worry about.
Of course, this incident will force the Boks and other World Cup title contenders to look within their own ranks and ask some tough questions. Which player can they not afford to lose in the lead-up to the play-offs? Do they have the depth to survive such a setback, or will they, like Wales, struggle to find a much needed like-for-like replacement if the situation demands it?
The presence of scrumhalf Fourie du Preez transforms the Boks into a sharper attacking and tactical-kicking unit. The inclusion of No 8 Duane Vermeulen provides the Boks with an edge at the gainline and at the breakdown. Outside centre Jean de Villiers is needed to man that crucial defensive channel.
All that said, the most indispensable player in the squad of 31 is Victor Matfield. Remove the veteran lock from the equation, and suddenly the Boks are more susceptible at the lineouts and kick-offs. Remove Matfield from the field of play, and suddenly the Boks are without their chief contester and organiser at what should be a game-shaping set piece.
Lood de Jager deputised at No 5 with mixed success in the recent Rugby Championship. De Jager is still in the process of converting from No 4 to 5. He is at this point of his career a better individual ball-carrier than a lineout manager.
Pieter-Steph du Toit looks to be a natural fit at No 5, but injuries have limited his development at Vodacom Super Rugby level over the past two years, and it remains a concern that he will go to this World Cup with only four Test caps (all as a substitute).
The Boks haven’t had a lot of luck with injuries this season. They may feel that they are due some at the coming World Cup. Coach Heyneke Meyer will hope that several of his key players, namely Du Preez, Vermeulen and De Villiers, make successful returns to the field and enjoy game time before the play-offs.
At the same time, Meyer will hope that Matfield stays fit for the duration of the tournament. Indeed, that could be more important than anything else as far as the Boks' injury situation is concerned.
From an opponent’s perspective, a Bok side without Matfield is a less threatening prospect. A Bok side without Matfield is not going to apply pressure at the lineouts or manufacture steals and turnovers at crucial periods of the game. Should Matfield sustain a debilitating injury between now and the World Cup play-offs, the news will boost the Boks’ direct opponents, be it Australia, England, Wales or even Fiji.
Halfpenny was the player Wales could not afford to lose. Matfield is that player for the Boks. South Africa need Matfield’s body to remain intact for the next seven or so weeks if they are to have any chance of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup on 31 October.