Possibly the most surprising aspect of the Springboks’ series win over England over the last month is that despite not losing a test, there certainly are many spots that are up for grabs as they head towards the Castle Rugby Championship.
With the focus shifting back to Super Rugby this week, Bok coach Heyneke Meyer will be running a keen eye over hopefuls who want to make it into the Bok squad, especially having achieved his first goal of a series victory against the English.
Meyer is no fool, he knows the 2-0 result and drawn third test were hardly what he wanted by his own standards. But it did give the Boks a basis to work from and at least he didn’t have to start his tenure as Bok coach on the back foot.
The Bok coach has consistently repeated he wanted to win the England series by any means possible before starting to build on the road ahead. In the broader analysis, the Boks did well and barring a poor performance in the last test, dominated the English for most of the series.
But with the might of World Champions New Zealand waiting, the Bok management know they will need to improve significantly if they are to reach their goal of being the best side in world rugby.
The encouraging thing is that despite the All Blacks whitewash of Ireland in the last test, both they and the Wallabies have shown some chinks in their armour that the Boks will be looking to exploit.
Still, perhaps the most worrying aspect is the fact that while the other two Sanzar partners are settled combinations, the Boks are still looking to find theirs with only the front row, wingers and centre combinations looking like they’ve done enough to warrant selection without question.
Few will argue across the country that the Sharks front row of Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis, as well as Tendai Mtawarira have shown enough to retain their places and settle in to be the Boks long term option up front, while both Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen’s form at the moment makes them certain choices. Meyer has already chosen Jean de Villiers as his captain until the end of the season while Frans Steyn’s performance in the opening two tests cements his place as well.
But there are bigger worries – the composition of the locks, back row and halfbacks, as well as fullback which will keep Meyer busy over the next six weeks deciding whether or not to make changes or keep the faith in certain players.
The biggest worry it seems, is the halfbacks, where Morne Steyn’s poor game in Port Elizabeth, as well as his missed kicks in the first two games in Durban and Johannesburg make him a prime target for critics. Steyn kicked just 12 out of 24 kicks in the series, a long way off his standards, and will be hoping his form is found before the Boks take on the might of the Southern Hemisphere.
To be fair, Steyn has been better at attacking the gain line, something he hardly did last year, but at times hasn’t been helped by the poor service of Francois Hougaard inside him, who didn’t have the best of test series.
The problem in both positions is the lack of successors. While Johan Goosen remains injured, Elton Jantjies remains the best option with Pat Lambie (also currently injured) as the other possibility at flyhalf. Peter Grant, while having a good Super Rugby season, is also seen as a player who cannot relieve the pressure in his own half, and his commitment to the Japanese rugby system also counts against him.
At halfback the problems are even worse, with Piet van Zyl seen as the next in line, but without an entire season of Super Rugby behind him. Ruan Pienaar did well in taking over from Hougaard, and there is always that pesky argument that Hougaard is better served in space, at wing, where he can make a bigger impact.
At lock Andries Bekker’s return will complicate selections, with Juandre Kruger doing well in his opening test series, but neither is a certainty for the position, while Willem Alberts is the one name among the loose trio who is certain of his place.
Marcelle Coetzee suffered in Alberts’ absence while the Boks didn’t dominate the breakdown in Port Elizabeth, making a case for the return of Heinrich Brussow.
Not withstanding Brussow’s claim over the next few weeks, and you can expect his answer will be a loud one after losing his place in the Bok squad, the return of Duanne Vermeulen and Schalk Burger also complicates selection matters, as both were in Meyer’s original plans before getting injured.
At fullback Lambie seems to be the most likely player for the position, while Zane Kirchner and Joe Pietersen can both stake stronger claims in Super Rugby over the next few weeks. Gio Aplon, who appeared at fullback in Port Elizabeth, will be seen more as a wing, and will have to compete with the other wingers for a spot.
Either way Meyer will be watching the performance of all the contenders over the next few weeks. Luckily the general feeling is that the return of Bekker and Burger in particular, can only bolster an already strong Bok pack, and that can only be a good thing going forward.