Meyer banking on battered warriors

To be successful at the World Cup, the Springboks must trust players whose pedigree endorses risk for reward, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

The critique of Heyneke Meyer’s World Cup contenders is that everything centres around players whose recent international game time betrays their international quality as being among the world’s best at some stage of their career.

Victor Matfield, at 38 years old, remains the master of kick-off receives, of managing the lineout and of putting pressure on the opposition lineout. Matfield, named Man of the Match after the 2007 World Cup final, retired after a less successful 2011 World Cup quarter-final defeat.

Meyer, who coached Matfield at the Bulls for a decade, enticed Matfield to put right the wrongs of the 2011 defeat against Australia in Wellington.

Matfield will lead the Boks’ in the World Cup opener because squad captain Jean de Villiers is unlikely to play in the first two pool matches. It could be that De Villiers only returns for the last outing before the play-offs.

Matfield, in fitness and conditioning, was second only to 21-year-old Bulls utility back Jesse Kriel.

Meyer, in defending Matfield’s guaranteed selection, was insistent that Matfield’s rugby brain had no equal among South African forwards. Meyer said he trusted Matfield as a player and leader, believed him still to be the best No 5 international lock and a player whose X factor would be defining at the World Cup.

Matfield, in his 2014 comeback year, did enough to vindicate his selection but the 2015 World Cup year has not been as kind to the veteran, whose 38-year-old body understandably has been vulnerable to injury.

It has not deterred Meyer’s enthusiasm. Neither has it blunted the coach’s view that Matfield, even at 38, is the first name penciled into his World Cup lineout.

But Matfield, for all his career genius as the best No 5 lineout specialist of the professional era, has in 2015 not been the colossal 2007 World Cup presence. He has missed Tests through injury and others, among the opposition and within the squad, have stood taller in their all-round contribution.

Experience is vital at any World Cup, and within the Bok squad context, Matfield is the most capped Springbok in history. But he is not the Matfield of 2007 and it would be outrageous to expect him to match the peak of his international career.

Meyer is convinced Matfield, like Fourie du Preez, will inspire the Boks’ to the title. But Du Preez hasn’t played a Test in 2015 becaue of injury and has played irregularly for the Boks in the last two years since being lured out of international retirement.

Matfield and Du Preez are two of our game’s greatest and among the elite to have played in the professional era. But they’re being backed on historical form and the heroics of the World Cup-winning 2007 campaign.

Du Preez, interviewed after the naming of the World Cup 31, admitted he was not Test match fit but felt he could play himself into fitness during the tournament.

Ditto De Villiers and Duane Vermeulen, whose first showing at the World Cup could be as late as the quarter-final.

Then there’s Willem Alberts and Pieter-Steph du Toit, who between them have played 40 minutes of Test rugby in 2015.

Meyer’s has risked in his selections. It’s not the quality of the player that is questioned but the medical history in 2015.

No other coach, among the tournaments top six contenders, has trusted the medical recovery of a group of injured senior players.

Coaches have admitted to risking with, at best, two players in 31, who won’t feature in the opening round because of injury.

Meyer takes seven players, each with huge standing in the international game, to the World Cup with the belief all seven will play in the quarter-finals and be influential in guiding the Boks to victory in the final.

It’s loyalty at its most extreme and Meyer’s legacy will be determined by the battered warriors he gave a free World Cup pass. He either be remembered for making the bravest call or his tenure will be defined by an act of lunacy in picking so many crocked players.

Meyer has spoken of passion, of desire and of patriotism. He says the players will die for the cause.

I’d have been more inspired and more of a believer if he has said he had players who wanted to live for a triumph. After all, it is a sport. No one should be thinking a life is worth saving a try.

I’d also have preferred if the Boks’ pre-tournament focus was on the X-factor talents Handré Pollard and Kriel; two youngsters who in one Test against the All Blacks did more than some do in a decade.

There has to be hope for the Springboks with players like Pollard and Kriel among the most talented and fearless of the next generation of potential Test match greats. But there simply cannot be any conviction of a Bok success, based on South African sporting pride and the simplicity that passion will pound those whose successes in 2015 have modeled on skill, passion and settled combinations.

Patriotism alone won’t win it for the Springboks. And for all the passion among the supporters, the Boks in 2015 don’t have the results or the all-round player pedigree to match those who refuse to believe the Boks can lose World Cups.

Folks, the Boks do lose World Cups. In fact, they have lost more than they have won.

Photo: Gabriel Rossi/Gallo Images