Heyneke Meyer says injuries are inevitable at World Cups and the Springboks may need more than 31 players to succeed in England. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Nobody will forget the story about a fourth-choice flyhalf guiding New Zealand to the 2011 World Cup title. First it was Dan Carter who went down with a tournament-ending injury during the pool stages of that tournament. Then it was Carter’s understudy, Colin Slade, who succumbed. The All Blacks were forced to add two players to their squad at the eleventh hour, namely Aaron Cruden and Stephen Donald.
As fate would have it, Cruden went down in the final against France, and it fell to Donald to steer New Zealand to glory. The big moment arrived when Donald was asked to take a shot at goal. His successful penalty attempt took New Zealand out to an 8-0 lead. France scored a converted try, but ultimately that Donald penalty goal was the difference in a final scoreline that read 8-7.
The lesson to take from that victory is that depth is essential at a tournament of this duration and magnitude. As Heyneke Meyer pointed out on Monday, the Webb Ellis Cup is no longer claimed by a 15-man, 23-man, or even a 31-man group. Meyer feels that there has to be a larger pool to draw upon in the event of injuries.
‘You go to the tournament with 31 players, but there are always going to be injuries,' said Meyer. ‘New Zealand won in 2011, but their fourth flyhalf won the game for them. You have to have three or four players in each position if you want to be successful.’
Meyer also feels that these camps have provided him with a rare opportunity to interact with, and ultimately motivate, the fringe players.
‘You get a feeling working with the guys in camp. We do a lot of one on ones, I speak to every single guy and tell him where he stands, as well as where he needs to improve.
‘If you take a guy like [Stormers prop] Steven Kitshoff, I told him at the first training camp in Joburg that he’s a brilliant player but that he needed to improve his ball-handling skills because that's what we were looking for in a loosehead. He went back to the Stormers and he has been world-class [in the ensuing rounds of Super Rugby].
‘I truly believe that is the benefit of having a bigger squad,’ Meyer continued. ‘I want to tick all the boxes, I want depth and for the guys to know there's a lot of competition. Giving a guy an idea of where he stands also lends the player more focus.’
While the Bok coach has a good idea of who will travel to England in September, he will only finalise his World Cup squad after the Rugby Championship. There's still time for the fringe players to impress Meyer and the selectors.
‘A fringe player must be able to play more than one position,’ said Meyer. ‘You can only call for a replacement in the World Cup squad if there is a long-term injury, not a short-term injury, so you need fringe players [in the 31-man group] with versatility. I will give guys a chance right until the moment when the World Cup squad is announced, because I really want the best 31 there for the World Cup.
‘I’m also very mindful of taking the right mix of youth and experience to the World Cup. You don’t want to go there with a so-called old side, in a comfort zone, who feel they can play every game and win the World Cup.
'The young guys give the old guys energy. Keep them on their toes. It’s been unbelievable to see this at these camps, the new guys coming through and lifting the more senior players. I don’t pick on reputation, and the senior players know these youngsters will be pushing them over the next few months.'
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