Heyneke Meyer needs to ensure his key loose forwards receive sufficient game time in the Springboks' five matches leading up to the World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
On Saturday, Meyer announced his extended squad for the upcoming internationals against a World XV, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina. Heinrich Brüssow was included in that group. Once he has recovered from the broken arm sustained this past April, Brüssow will make a return to Test rugby after nearly four years in the wilderness.
Indeed, if the openside flank delivers in the next few matches, he will travel to the World Cup as the understudy to Francois Louw. The Boks have relied heavily on Louw at the breakdown over the past three seasons, and have struggled in that area when he’s been absent. There has been no like-for-like replacement when Louw has been ruled out with injury, as was witnessed on the 2014 end-of-year tour to Europe.
Meyer is also mindful of the need for a world-class fetcher in northern hemisphere conditions, and thus the need to field a specialist at the World Cup in England later this year. It’s more than likely Meyer will take two such players, Louw and Brüssow, to the global tournament in September. This will ensure the Boks are covered in the event of injury.
In the lead-up to the Test against Scotland in Nelspruit two years ago, Meyer highlighted the need for an alternative in that position. Louw was recalled to the Boks in late 2012, and had a major influence on the team's breakdown performances at the back-end of the Rugby Championship and subsequent tour to Europe.
And yet, in mid-2013, Meyer wanted to see one of the youngsters, Marcell Coetzee and Siya Kolisi, growing in that openside role. Meyer said that if these two players didn’t make the necessary progress, he would be forced to reconsider his stance on Brüssow: a loose forward who is too short to be a lineout option but one of the world's best at the breakdown.
Brüssow’s selection suggests that Coetzee and Kolisi have not convinced Meyer of their value in that specialist position over the past two seasons. Coetzee has improved a great deal in terms of his ball-carrying and defence, and had a solid season for the Boks in 2014. However, he is not yet in the league of players such as Louw, Brüssow, David Pocock and Richie McCaw at the breakdown.
The same is true of Kolisi, who was outplayed by Pocock when the Stormers hosted the Brumbies in the recent Vodacom Super Rugby play-off. Afterwards, Stormers coach Allister Coetzee lamented the lack of an out-and-out fetcher at the franchise. This comment did not reflect well on Kolisi.
Of course, these men are not out of the World Cup race completely. Meyer is set to take five loose forwards to the World Cup, but a lot can happen between now and the Boks’ first group game against Japan on 19 September. And then, at the tournament itself, it’s unlikely the Boks will go through their campaign without sustaining injuries. Meyer will select 31 players for that tournament, but more than 31 players will be used.
However, as a matter of priority, Meyer needs to ensure his two premier fetchers receive enough game time before that tournament. Due to a neck injury, Louw hasn’t played Test rugby since September last year. Meyer will want to give Louw time to gel with other members of the first-choice loose trio, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen, before the World Cup.
Having said that, Brüssow hasn’t been involved in a single match since Meyer took the reins in 2012. He is also coming back from an arm injury that forced him to miss much of the 2015 Super Rugby tournament. Brüssow needs an opportunity to find his groove in Test rugby, and an extended chance to play alongside some of the regulars of the past three years.
Alberts is another who didn’t feature much in 2014 due to injury. Meyer will face a juggling act at blindside flank, with Schalk Burger another strong option that needs game time. If Burger is to be considered as a realistic option at No 8 at the World Cup, he must also be trialled in that position in the coming Rugby Championship.
Meyer has made the right decision to recall Brüssow. It’s a selection that will strengthen South Africa’s Rugby Championship campaign, and more importantly, their bid for the world title later this year.
It’s also good to see centres Frans Steyn and Jaque Fourie, as well as flyhalf Morné Steyn, back in the mix. Jean de Villiers has filled the gap at No 13 in recent times, but a combination of De Villiers at 12 and Fourie at 13 certainly offers more on attack and defence. Frans Steyn is another experienced option, and Meyer has often spoken about Steyn's rare ability to kick long-range field goals as extremely valuable.
Morné Steyn’s goal-kicking proved the difference for Stade Français in the recent Top 14 competition. He will push 2014 regulars Handré Pollard and Pat Lambie for a place in the match-day squad over the next few months. All three players are likely to travel to the World Cup, but each of the three will be looking to make the No 10 jersey his own before then.
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