A serious injury to Handré Pollard or any other Springboks competing in the Currie Cup will compromise Heyneke Meyer's plans for the short and long term, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Blue Bulls hammered Griquas this past Saturday. At least that's what the scoreboard suggests. The truth is the game changed when Pollard was brought off the bench on the hour.
The Bok flyhalf scored a try and created another for Akona Ndungane with a well-weighted chip kick. It was a fantastic cameo, and it's likely that Pollard will be promoted to the starting side for the semi-final against Western Province at Newlands.
The Bulls need to back Pollard at No 10 if they are to beat WP this Saturday. It was great to see Pollard running hard at the line, and throwing himself into contact on defence. He played like there was no tomorrow, or more specifically, like there were no greater games to come.
If we look at the big picture, however, that game at Loftus Versfeld was meaningless. The Currie Cup semi-finals and even the final itself are not important. The Boks will play four Tests in Europe this November, and what is important is that they have a strong group available for what will be a challenging tour.
The contracted Boks have already been withdrawn from the Currie Cup, and will not run the risk of serious injury before that tour. And yet, Heyneke Meyer will be a nervous man as he watches the final two rounds of the Currie Cup, as there are a few outside the contracted group who will have important roles to play in Ireland, England, Italy and Wales next month.
Pollard was outstanding in the Boks' recent Rugby Championship campaign. He may not have impressed in the early stages against Argentina, but few will deny that he made a significant statement in the two battles against New Zealand.
He will travel to Europe as the Boks' first-choice flyhalf. At least, that is Meyer's big hope.
Pollard will first need to survive the Currie Cup play-offs. The results of those matches are not as important as Pollard coming through unscathed. Indeed, a Currie Cup title is not going to improve South Africa's chances of winning four from four in the northern hemisphere, and taking some momentum into the 2015 World Cup.
Pat Lambie showed his skill and temperament to nail the match-winning penalty goal against New Zealand at Ellis Park. It was also Lambie who made a telling contribution in the preceding Test at Newlands. If Pollard is not fit to tour, Lambie will make a fine replacement.
And yet, Meyer will want to see how Pollard fares in northern hemisphere conditions. The 20-year-old made a big statement when he performed against the No 1 team on the planet, both in Wellington and Johannesburg. But Pollard now needs to show what he can do in the region where the 2015 World Cup will be staged.
Meyer knows what he has in Lambie. He has done the job for the Boks in Europe before. Lambie will receive further opportunities this November, but it's imperative that Pollard is exposed to conditions that will be very different to anything he has experienced in his short international career.
There are a few other players outside the contracted group whom Meyer will be watching closely over the next two weeks. Performance will be a secondary concern.
Marcel van der Merwe impressed with his scrummaging display against the Australasians, and is the only alternative to tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis. Like Pollard, the Bulls No 3 must come through the Currie Cup play-offs without serious injury. If not, the Boks are once again in a position where they're relying on Du Plessis to play extensively.
The Boks are equally thin at scrumhalf, with Fourie du Preez ruled out for the season and Ruan Pienaar still on the sidelines. Francois Hougaard is currently with the contracted group, and will not play Currie Cup rugby. Cobus Reinach, however, will do duty for the Sharks in the play-offs.
Meyer is unlikely to pick players for that 36-man squad on the basis of Currie Cup form. A few bolters may be named in the group next week, but performances in the preceding Super Rugby competition will be taken into consideration.
Loose forward Nizaam Carr has had an outstanding season for both the Stormers and WP. It is his showings for the Super Rugby team that may earn him the right to tour with the Boks this November. That said, he will need to come through the Currie Cup play-offs without a serious injury.
Meyer will be hoping that those competing in the European and Japanese leagues remain fit for at least another couple of weeks. Players of particular importance include Schalk Burger and JP Pietersen, abrasive individuals who will be needed in the physical bouts against Ireland and England.
Indeed, the Bok coach is set for an anxious fortnight.
Photo: Annel Laing/HSM Images