Boks lack cover at five, eight

Cape Town – Only at No 5 lock and for specialist No 8s does Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer fall short of obvious cover options in his initial Castle Rugby Championship squad.

A feature of the 30-strong party revealed on Saturday – a fortnight out from the Loftus opener against Argentina – is the handy versatility of several players, making his life easier in the almost inevitable event of injury-related setbacks.

In the backline, for instance, Willie le Roux and Lwazi Mvovo can be employed at both fullback and wing, veteran Bryan Habana is no Test stranger to either wing berth, rookie Damian de Allende has possibilities in both midfield jerseys (ditto returning captain Jean de Villiers) plus wing, Pat Lambie embraces flyhalf and fullback, and designated scrumhalf Francois Hougaard can also switch seamlessly to wing if required.

But it is perhaps in the pack where a couple of berths would require some head-scratching in the event of unforeseen, detrimental developments.

In Meyer’s four-strong choice of locks, for example, the balance is tilted heavily in favour of No 4, “enforcer” type of customers with all of Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Toulon-based stalwart Bakkies Botha making the cut.

 The only out-and-out, specialist “athlete” for the middle-jumper No 5 slot is Victor Matfield, probably suggesting that Meyer has seen enough of his former lustre from the back-from-retirement lineout colossus to be convinced he can be stationed there for the duration of the Championship.

Matfield, in his 38th year, is understandably going to be carefully managed in the extended lead-up to World Cup 2015, but with the Bulls bowing out of this year’s Super Rugby before the playoffs phase, the 2007 World Cup winner has had a few weeks of bonus feet-up time anyway and should be raring to go against the Pumas on August 16.

There are also two bye weekends in mid-competition, so it not as though Matfield’s ageing limbs are going to be flogged to death during the four-nation event.

Still, there is method to Meyer’s apparent madness in lopsidedly favouring front-end locks, because both outstanding young beanpoles Etzebeth and De Jager offer attractive credentials for shifting to No 5: they combine both the physical dimensions and relish for their current areas of expertise with the necessary mobility to adapt to the other jersey.

Don’t be too surprised if either, or both, gets a crack in the different capacity during the Championship (possibly in the second half of certain matches) if the opportunity presents itself.

The job usually includes the key lineout calling task, so Meyer may offer them sporadic “learner plates” in that respect and assess how they fare.

There is just one specialist position in the current squad that sticks out like a bit of a sore thumb for only containing one representative: Duane Vermeulen at No 8.

It looks as though the gnarly Stormers player is going to carry a heavy load – not something he ever shies away from, mind – in the Championship, although like Matfield a silver lining of late has been the break afforded him by the Capetonians failing to reach the Super Rugby 2014 finals series.

Vermeulen has had an off-duty stint at a particularly welcome time, and will hopefully be properly rejuvenated for the Boks’ assault on the competition.

There is, simply, no other designated No 8 in the Bok group although strapping Sharks unit Willem Alberts has good past experience of the role; under the Meyer regime he has been almost exclusively been used as blindside flank which is really his strongest suit.

Does Alberts have the necessary mobility and skill set to switch to Bok No 8 in the event of mishap befalling Vermeulen?

The jury is arguably out on that one so those observers partial, for example, to the likes of rangy Lions captain Warren Whiteley – he boasted strikingly good Super Rugby stats in various capacities this year – and the Stormers’ adaptable loosie Nizaam Carr (Vermeulen’s designated No 8 cover at Newlands, though he’s played at six a lot lately) may be slightly ruing their absence from the mix.

Broadly, though, the Boks look pretty healthily stocked for depth across the park ... and there is nothing to stop coach Meyer “going outside” in the event of emergency.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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