The three most significant names in Heyneke Meyer's Springbok training squad are Frans Steyn, Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
Matfield and Burger represent two of the great Springbok forwards in the professional era. Steyn, among South Africa’s backs, is the most talented in the professional era.
What’s significant is that none was part of Meyer’s Springboks in 2013. Steyn was injured for most of the year, Burger was fighting for his life early in 2013 after contracting bacterial meningitis and Matfield was a retired player turned coach.
Meyer’s Springboks ended 2013 comfortably the second-best team in the world and not far off the All Blacks as the leading team. Meyer spoke of fitness, match conditioning, squad depth and the need for one or two more X-factor players if the Boks were to beat the All Blacks in 2014 and claim the No 1 ranking.
Steyn, Matfield and Burger give Meyer X factor in heaps. The trio also gives the Bok coach international experience and presence. All three are globally respected players. All three would be in demand in any rugby team.
Meyer has options; plenty of them.
It’s a good time to be a Bok coach and his greatest challenge will be accommodating the talent, in South Africa and abroad.
Good enough should be the only thing that matters. The age of a player, be it 18 or 38, should be irrelevant. Similarly where the player is based, be it Tokyo, Sydney, Toulon, London or Cape Town.
To be the best South Africa has to tap into the best.
Injuries are a part of the game and the Springboks have to have two options per position. There can be no guarantee that one player will survive the next 18 months. Meyer, ideally, would want three players of equal quality in each position.
Matfield’s Bulls didn’t play this past weekend but the veteran has already shown his qualities this season. He is the best No 5 lock in South Africa on form. Historically, he is the best the world has known in the modern era. His experience will be invaluable and his role will be that of a player and lineout coach. Meyer was right to convince Matfield to play again because the player retired two seasons too early.
Burger, if he can convince Meyer of his fitness, simply has to be in the mix. He adds physicality and mongrel that is unmatched among South Africa’s loose forwards. Burger also brings a mentality that can only improve the Boks.
I also think this Saturday's European Cup final between Toulon and Saracens gives Meyer a wonderful opportunity to assess the pedigree of Juan Smith, who is playing with the vigour and influence of the loose forward who helped win South Africa the World Cup in 2007.
Meyer has always been a believer in experience and youth. He has never preferred one to the other. So is Sharks director of rugby and former Bok and Brumbies coach, Jake White, whose team used this combination of young minds and old heads to overcome all sorts of adversity in beating the Crusaders in Christchurch.
South African rugby certainly doesn’t have the depth of New Zealand when the talk is of 150 players. But when it comes to a national squad of 30, there is as much quality about the South Africans as there is the Kiwis.
Meyer won’t name many European-based players in his first national training squad because the European season climaxes in the next fortnight. Japanese-based veterans Fourie du Preez and Jaque Fourie will be in the mix, although the latter has sustained a serious ankle injury and may be sidelined for the entire Test season. Expect to see a strong European-based flavour against Wales and Scotland. And definitely expect them there for the Rugby Championship.
Meyer will be thrilled at the weekend’s wins for the Stormers, Cheetahs and Sharks. The latter win is huge mentally because of the involvement of so many of the Springboks who will play against the All Blacks in New Zealand later this year.
Steyn is the individual who will have Meyer smiling the most, simply because of the player’s commitment and maturity.
Steyn is not a No 10. His best position is inside centre and he is also a quality fullback, but injuries to the primary Sharks flyhalves has meant Steyn taking on the responsibility. And he has excelled.
Cheetahs flyhalf Johan Goosen also gave a reminder of his talents against the Brumbies and Handré Pollard, the Bulls flyhalf and SA U20 captain, will be among the Bok squads selected later this year.
Meyer this season will be able to select his strongest squad in three seasons and finally he will have two run on XVs of equal quality.
Only New Zealand can boast of a similar national squad situation.
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