Wisdom of Meyer’s Bok team shake-up faces Twickenham acid test

2014-11-14 00:00

CAPE TOWN — The wisdom of coach Heyneke Meyer’s supposedly planned rotation that has seen five changes to the Springbok starting XV faces an acid test against England at Twickenham tomorrow.

It is rare for the normally temperate Meyer to alter his line-up to so extreme an extent — particularly between the two Tests that always looked the toughest of the four-match northern hemisphere itinerary this year.

The official line, it seems, is that things aren’t as radical as they seem: the Bok spin doctors are selling the latest, shuffled “product” as something that was intended all along, and making the additional point that the overall match 23 is the same as the one that did duty in the upset 29-15 loss in Dublin.

Decide for yourself whether you think the cake will taste the same just because the icing may not look too different; to me it seems more like a tangible change from ginger to marzipan and there may well be sections of the English media mischievously sniffing an element of panic in the Bok ranks.

This writer’s wish, for the record, was for a maximum of three alterations to the starting combination, and instead empowering very much the lion’s share of the chastened XV from the Irish game to go out and redeem themselves in a hurry.

Of course the side chosen does not preclude the possibility of it happening anyway: a shrewd infusion of experience and proven Test mettle in the shape of JP Pietersen for Cornal Hendricks and Schalk Burger for Oupa Mohoje for this suddenly red-letter encounter potentially enhances the mix in a big way.

Especially in the case of Bur-ger, it gives South Africa greater specialist breakdown skill among the loose trio — an area where the Irish outfoxed the Boks last Saturday, even without their top-ranked open-side flank Sean O’Brien — as he should aid Marcell Coetzee considerably on the deck.

Oupa Mohoje, who reverts to the bench for the time being, is naturally more upright in his playing style as a blind-sider and carries sound second-half impact potential at Twickers if the game has opened up and his pace in free space could become a factor against the unsuspecting English. The bye-bye to Francois Hougaard? A huge lobby, I imagine, will understandably feel he simply “had to go” after a jittery, fumbling display at Aviva Stadium.

I would be less lukewarm about the change to Cobus Reinach if his selection carried more of a guarantee of astute game management and tactical kicking expertise; as with Hougaard, these are not strong suits although nobody doubts his blistering speed on the break and eye for a half-gap.

The two switches I’d have preferred to see avoided are Pat Lambie for Handré Pollard at flyhalf and, particularly, Adriaan Strauss for Bismarck du Plessis in the hooker’s jersey.

Look, there’s a welcome steeliness in the body language of the late-2014 Lambie, as evidenced by a great cameo against Australia at Newlands and then that ice-cool long-range penalty to decide the match against the All Blacks in Johannesburg.

There is every chance he will do well — now from the outset — against England, too. And yes, there is a case for saying he’s an appropriate, more seasoned horse for tomorrow’s specific, taxing course.

But I also have some fears over the mental effect the sidelining of Pollard may have on the 20-year-old, an influential presence in successive Test matches against the world-leading All Blacks — no bad CV item, that? — and impeded as any No 10 would have been in Dublin by the unfortunate frailties of his halfback partner.

It almost seems as if he’s been inadvertently told: “be a match-winner every week, kid, or you could be dumped, OK?”

I find the Du Plessis demotion the most baffling of all, a situation not aided in any way by Meyer’s quoted concession: “[He] had a very good game in Dublin, especially in the set-pieces.”

With due respect to the high-quality Strauss, Sharks hard man Du Plessis is one of those characters famed for his ability to make a vital “statement” in the early stages of the toughest, most uncompromising games, and there may well be some relief in the England camp that this heavyweight bruiser is confined to the subs bench initially.

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