The only surprise at the unveiling of the Springbok training squads was the omission of veteran lock Flip van der Merwe. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The omission of Frans Steyn is more disappointing than surprising. Earlier this year, Steyn said that he had made peace with the fact that he may never play for the Boks again. He ruled himself out of contention.
And yet, Steyn has stated on more than one occasion that he would love to play 100 Tests for his country. Bok coach Heyneke Meyer said in a recent interview that he has a good relationship with Steyn, and wants a player of Steyn’s experience and talent in his squad.
What the announcement on Sunday inferred is that there are still unresolved issues between Steyn and Saru. It would be a shame if one of the most gifted players of this generation missed the upcoming World Cup because of those issues.
What has come as a complete surprise is the omission of Flip van der Merwe. The Bulls second-rower has been a solid performer for the Boks during Meyer’s tenure. In 2013, when Victor Matfield was still on hiatus, Van der Merwe switched to No 5 and assumed the role as chief lineout tactician. It was a memorable season for the Boks, as they won 83% of their matches. And Van der Merwe was rightly praised for his contributions.
Eben Etzebeth and Victor Matfield are the preferred starting combination for the World Cup, but Meyer would do well to ensure that there is sufficient quality and experience in reserve. One would have thought that Van der Merwe, as an experienced and versatile player who can cover No 4 and 5, would be an ideal candidate for a 31-man World Cup squad.
On Sunday, Meyer said that the door is not completely shut to those who didn’t make either training squad. However, it is strange that such a potentially important squad member has been omitted from this initial training group. It’s even stranger when you consider the dearth of experienced No 4 locks in the current mix.
Last November, Bakkies Botha announced his retirement from Test rugby. At the time, Meyer said that he hoped Botha would reconsider the decision. Botha has been playing some good rugby for Toulon, and will compete in the European Champions Cup final this coming weekend.
Could it be that Botha changes his mind and targets one final push with the Boks? It seems unlikely. Indeed, when myself and several other South African journalists chatted to Botha in Padua last November, he laughed off talk of a Test comeback. The 2014-15 Champions Cup final is likely to mark the end of his involvement at a high level.
Matfield and Pieter-Steph du Toit are specialist No 5s, as is the newcomer Ruan Botha. Lood de Jager has played on both sides of the second row, but doesn’t boast the same experience as Van der Merwe.
No overseas-based players were included in the two training groups named on Sunday. What needs to be remembered is that Francois Louw, Fourie du Preez, Ruan Pienaar and Bryan Habana are all likely to feature in that 31-man World Cup squad, and that Johan Goosen and Jaque Fourie are strong candidates (if the latter is available). It’s for this reason that the current training squads must be viewed in perspective.
What they do offer is some insight regarding Meyer’s thinking. While the Bok coach will have a good idea about his preferred 23 and the majority of that 31-man squad, he will know that serious injuries are inevitable. As was the case in previous tournaments, more than 31 players are likely to be involved in South Africa's World Cup campaign.
It was interesting to see that out of all those named in the training squads, Meyer singled out props Steven Kitshoff and Vincent Koch, as well as fullback Jesse Kriel as players in 'great form'. The Stormers front-rankers have been outstanding at the set pieces and in the loose. If Kriel continues to offer the Bulls a versatile option at fullback, he may be considered as a like-for-like alternative to Bok incumbent Willie le Roux.
Rudy Paige has been excellent for the Bulls this year, and will challenge the Sharks’ Cobus Reinach for that third scrumhalf position in the World Cup squad. One would expect Meyer to pick Hougaard as a wing who can cover scrumhalf in an emergency. The latter has been the form South African wing over the course of this year’s Super Rugby tournament.
Other uncapped players who deserve at least a look in during the coming Rugby Championship include Scarra Ntubeni and Lionel Mapoe. Along with Kitshoff, Koch, Kriel, and Paige, they have been consistently good for their respective franchises. These players may not make the 31-man cut, but they may come into contention if the Bok regulars fall foul to injury.
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