The Springboks need Damian de Allende to start at No 12 in the crunch match against Samoa. Heyneke Meyer’s real poser is who to back at No 13, writes JON CARDINELLI in Birmingham.
On Monday afternoon, the Boks trained for the first time since arriving in Birmingham. Flanker Willem Alberts watched the session from the sideline, and still appears to be nursing a calf injury. Hooker Adriaan Strauss didn’t make it to the practice at the University of Birmingham due to a cold.
There was no clear indication of who will start against Samoa this coming Saturday. Nevertheless, one would expect changes following the shock defeat to Japan, especially in the backline.
The centre combination that started in Brighton was ineffective on attack and susceptible on defence. Captain Jean de Villiers was off the pace in what was only his second Test in 2015. Jesse Kriel battled with his positioning on defence. An error by the rookie late in the game in Brighton contributed to Japan’s game-clinching try.
De Allende has to be considered for a fast and furiously physical contest against Samoa. The strapping No 12 was a force at the gainline in the recent Rugby Championship. The Boks could certainly do with an inside centre who asks questions of the opposition defence, because at the moment, De Villiers doesn’t appear to be up to that specific task.
However, Meyer may be wary of discarding De Villiers completely. While De Allende and Kriel played some outstanding attacking rugby over the course of the Rugby Championship, that midfield partnership was exposed regularly on defence. It would be a gamble to back that kind of combination at a World Cup tournament where defence is more important than attack.
Meyer has a big call to make. The Bok coach has already predicted that Kriel will – in time – become the greatest ever South African No 13. While Kriel may go on to fulfill the prophecy down the line, Meyer has to consider where Kriel is right now at this stage of his development. Is Kriel ready for the starting responsibility? His recent defensive performances against Australia, New Zealand, and most recently, Japan suggest not.
Moving De Villiers to No 13 is a great idea in theory. De Villiers reads the attacking play of the opposition exceptionally well, which is why he has scored so many intercept tries over the course of his career. When De Villiers has started at outside centre, the Boks’ line defence has been more secure. That ability to read the play and intercept has often allowed South Africa to turn defence into attack.
Perhaps what De Villiers offers on defence will win him a starting position ahead of Kriel. That said, De Villiers has battled since returning from injury. The optimists will say that the veteran centre needs more time to adjust to the pace and physicality of Test rugby. They will say that he needs a couple of more games to regain that form of old. But it’s a big gamble for Meyer to take. The odds are against De Villiers improving dramatically over the next week or so.
Whichever way you look at it, Meyer has a massive call to make. Retaining the midfield combination that started against Japan, namely De Villiers and Kriel, could also prove risky.
The Boks have to beat Samoa this Saturday. Another loss will jeopardise their chances of play-off qualification. Whoever starts at 12 and 13 will have a game-shaping role to play, especially on defence.
Meyer will announce his team to face Samoa on Wednesday afternoon.
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