Bok lock issues exposed

The Springboks need to secure a like-for-like alternative to No 5 lock Victor Matfield in the buildup to the World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Forget the result in Brisbane. Forget the poor second-half performance by the players as well as that of the coaches who were tasked with the management of the substitutes bench. The only real cause for concern in the aftermath is the injury sustained by Matfield, an irreplaceable tactician and performer within the Bok squad.

There have been some encouraging performances by several second-choice players over the past two matches. Centres Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel have done an outstanding job in the absence of Jean de Villiers, Frans Steyn, and Jaque Fourie. Scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar has delivered two assured tactical showings while Fourie du Preez has continued with his rehabilitation programme. And just this past Saturday, Schalk Burger proved he can deputise for star No 8 Duane Vermeulen at the World Cup.

But one question persists. Who is going to fill the void if Matfield goes down in the next few games, and at the World Cup itself?

Heyneke Meyer may need to find an answer over the next few days. Matfield injured his hamstring in the Test against the Wallabies. The veteran lock is in doubt for the clash against the All Blacks this Saturday.

Meyer needs to find an alternative who can add value, and not just in the coming match, but at the all-important global tournament later this year. He may have to look outside of the initial 49-man squad, a group that includes no real alternative to Matfield as far as skills and experience are concerned.

The No 5 position has been the source of many a migraine for Meyer over the past four seasons. When Meyer was appointed as head coach in early 2012, it was hoped that Matfield would come out of retirement to resume the No 5 responsibilities. Unfortunately for Meyer and the Boks, it wasn't until 2014 that Matfield was ready to make that comeback.

In the first two years of his tenure, Meyer endeavoured to find a like-for-like alternative. Andries Bekker played four games in 2012 before opting to continue his career exclusively in Japan. Juandré Kruger started at No 5 13 times and Flip van der Merwe seven over that two-year period.

While not as good as Matfield, Kruger fitted the mould of a lineout manager and organiser. Van der Merwe brought more physicality to the No 5 position, and yet, his tactical performances on the 2013 tour to Europe helped the Boks clinch three valuable wins.

Neither player has featured for the Boks since. Kruger has been playing his rugby for Racing Metro in France since late 2013. Van der Merwe struggled with injuries in 2014, and the Boks haven’t been able to secure his services in 2015 as yet due to a contractual dispute.

So much hinges on Matfield recovering from his current injury and then remaining fit for the duration of the World Cup campaign. However, the Boks need to plan for the worst-case scenario. They need to look at other No 5 options. Any one of Bekker, Kruger, or Van der Merwe will add value at the lineout.

Over the past couple of weeks, there has been talk of Lood de Jager’s growth as a No 5. There has been talk of blindside flank Oupa Mohoje possibly covering in that position. The Bok coaches are also hoping Pieter-Steph du Toit recovers from his knee injury and features in the two upcoming games against Argentina.

But again, one has to ask whether Du Toit is a realistic No 5 option for the World Cup at this stage of his career. While he has been described as a freakish talent by his coaches and teammates, the description relates to Du Toit's mobility rather than his lineout prowess.

While he made a big contribution to the Sharks' Currie Cup victory in 2013, injuries have limited his appearances and development at both Vodacom Super Rugby and Test level. Du Toit has played just two Tests since making his debut in 2013.

De Jager received plaudits for his recent performance in Brisbane, but in what context? De Jager plugged the gap following Matfield’s forced exit. While the Bok lineout didn’t wobble in the absence of Matfield, it didn't exactly thrive. And this is the problem. The Boks should be dominating at a set piece that has always been a traditional strength.

If the Boks hope to challenge the better teams in the World Cup play-offs, they need to back a specialist in that No 5 position. They will need Matfield, or at least a player in the Matfield mould, for a possible semi-final and final showdown against opponents such as England, Ireland, or New Zealand, teams that boast excellent set pieces.

The Boks cannot put all of their World Cup eggs in the Matfield basket, though. Meyer needs to install another specialist in his squad, and if it means recalling another player who's based overseas, then so be it.

Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli