Pieter-Steph du Toit's injury throws the spotlight on Victor Matfield's critical importance to the Springboks in a World Cup context, writes RYAN VREDE.
The Springboks are well stocked in most positions and would be able to absorb the blow of losing players in those positions relatively comfortably. Not so at No 5 lock where Du Toit and Matfield were almost certainly the two picks in that position for the World Cup.
Du Toit, however, won't play again for another three months, possibly longer, after tearing knee ligaments against the Cheetahs on Saturday. It's his second such injury, having missed the bulk of the 2014 season with the same ailment. Meyer had high hopes for Du Toit this season, believing the 22-year-old to be highly competent physically, technically and mentally despite his age and relative inexperience. Indeed Du Toit began the Sharks' campaign strongly and had been building to his best form before the injury.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer's knees are likely to be raw in the coming months given the amount of time he will spend on them petitioning the rugby gods to be merciful towards Matfield as far as serious injury is concerned. I asked earlier in the campaign whether Matfield still had what it takes to compete at an elite level. He looked off the pace in the opening rounds but then turned in a throwback performance against the Sharks at Loftus to remind us of his enduring class. Here's to him consistently replicating that form.
The Vodacom Bulls managed Matfield carefully upon his comeback from retirement in 2014, so Meyer should have no concerns on that front for the season ahead. However, the nature of the game is such that there is always the possibility of the veteran lock sustaining a freak, catastrophic injury that would rule him out of the global showpiece.
As far as men that could fill the void are concerned, the Stormers' Ruan Botha looks a promising player and may develop quickly as the tournament progresses. My sense is the World Cup will come too early for him to be a real consideration.
Meyer deeply lamented former Stormers lock Andries Bekker's decision to take up an offer from Japanese side Kobelco Steelers in 2013. He saw the giant second rower as the natural heir to Matfield, consistently extolling his value at lineout time and in general play. The Top League fixture list and match intensity has been kind to Bekker's fragile back. By all accounts he's in good nick and Meyer may have to consider feeling him out about a Test return.
Eben Etzebeth has been utilised in the position from time to time but has not developed to the point where he could lead the lineout. Besides, he is far better deployed in his preferred No 4 role.
Last year Meyer explained in detail to me the importance of having an experienced No 5, citing the ever-growing trend of tries in Test rugby being scored from lineout launches. On attack, he said, that player would amplify their threat, while defensively he would be able to stifle the opposition's plans.
At present, only Matfield fits that bill but at 37 (he'll be 38 by the time the World Cup kicks off) it's a dangerous situation for Meyer being forced to put all his eggs in that particular basket.
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