Juan Smith and Schalk Burger return to rugby after a long lay-off, but does Smith still have a role to play in Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer’s team? asks Khanyiso Tshwaku
The Springboks were very much short of experience in the loose forwards last year, with two debuts given to Stormers eighthman Duane Vermuelen and Sharks flanker Marcell Coetzee.
What their performances demonstrated was excellent depth in key positions, with Francois Louw’s fetching skills completing what looked like a solid and competitive back row.
Much like New Zealand missed the unheralded but very effective Jerome Kaino, Juan Smith’s truancy left a gaping void.
Kieran Read’s understated leadership with a hard edge, mixed with a ranginess that made him an auxiliary back, more than made up for Kaino’s absence.
Replacing the omnipresent Smith was not easy.
His legendary cleaning-out abilities, let alone his presence at the back of the line-out, overlooked the fact the Springboks often go into test matches without a specialist fetcher.
The problem with Achilles tendon tears is that they put a lot of strain on the calf muscle and cause a reduction in pace.
Not that Smith was the fastest of loose forwards in the Pierre Spies mould, but as an excellent cover defender, he hardly ever allowed the man who broke through the advantage line to get past him.
This was a hallmark he shared with Australia’s Rocky Elsom, who cut down linebreakers with a cold-edged efficiency.
Their absences necessitated a shift in the back rows and with the Waratahs churning out a fresh batch of loosies plus the emergence of Liam Gill, Elsom is no longer in the reckoning.
Two years is a very long time in rugby and at 32, Smith will be hard-pressed to make Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer look his way.
Meyer always talks about having leaders in his team.
Smith and Schalk Burger are capable in their own right.
Meyer will have to make a distinction in picking players on reputation and merit. It will be the defining issue of his year.
Easing Meyer back into action will also have to be handled with kid gloves as a team like the Cheetahs are always two or three injuries away from a crisis.
There is no cushion of a comfortable last-place finish as a promotion/relegation date with the Lions is in store for the worst performing Super Rugby franchise.