Boks to only change two?

Heyneke Meyer (Gallo Images)
Heyneke Meyer (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – One necessary change and one tactical alteration ... that is perhaps the limit to which coach Heyneke Meyer will tinker with his Springbok side for their opening Rugby Championship match against Argentina at FNB Stadium on Saturday (17:00).

Meyer generally favours continuity and rewards players for jobs well done the last time around: so if he is to stay true to that philosophy then the starting line-up which saw off Samoa impressively 56-23 in the June Test window period will largely remain intact when revealed on Wednesday.

After all, that disposal of the earthy Pacific Islanders was easily South Africa’s most vibrant and purposeful performance of the three assignments a few weeks ago – Italy and Scotland were earlier beaten with greater evidence of gremlins in the Bok brew.

Against that backdrop, Meyer may opt to fast-track Duane Vermeulen back to the No 8 slot, even given that he is decidedly ring-rusty after injury, in place of stalwart Pierre Spies, who had been very disappointing during June anyway until he was forced off at halftime against Samoa at Loftus and is ruled out now for months.

The only other change could involve Juandre Kruger, the former Bulls lock now based at Racing Metro, resuming his pretty regular 2012 partnership in the second row with Eben Etzebeth, and Flip van der Merwe downscaling back to the bench.

The last-named player was supposedly included alongside Etzebeth as a horses-for-courses pick to counter the uniquely robust threat of the Samoans – both are really No 4 locks in playing style, although the alliance worked surprisingly well on the day.

While specialist middle lineout jumper Kruger would restore balance to the combo on paper, it is not out of the question either that Van der Merwe will retain his starting place – the extra bulk he provides could come in useful at scrum-time against the Pumas’ famous 'bajada'.

Of course trying to predict what is going on in the mind of the Bok coach is no exact science: Meyer may have decided that the slightly different needs of the four-nation southern hemisphere competition require more profoundly altered personnel to enhance South Africa’s challenge.

For instance, the Willie le Roux fan club are entitled to be just a little on tenterhooks over the possibility that he makes way at fullback (though his versatile skills could also find a home at wing, of course) for the much more conservative game-style of Zane Kirchner.

A personal gut feel is that Meyer may be less inclined to ditch Le Roux’s mercurial, game-breaking style for the challenge of the Argentineans, than he might be if the Boks were immediately facing a red-letter outing against the All Blacks, for instance.

In that case, the Bok back-line may well be a carbon copy of the one which did duty in the up-tempo victory over Samoa, with the following players (from 15 to 9 in descending order) chosen: Willie le Roux, Bryan Habana, JJ Engelbrecht, Jean de Villiers (capt), Bjorn Basson, Morne Steyn, Ruan Pienaar.

The player on thinnest ice from that lot, arguably, would be Pienaar at scrumhalf: he was poor against Scotland and relatively improved against Samoa.

Meyer has three No 9s to pick from in his current 30-strong extended squad, with Jano Vermaak (who started the first Test of the year against Italy before pulling a hamstring) and seasoned Fourie du Preez also in contention.

This writer’s suspicion is that Du Preez, for all the hype around his partial return to Bok duty (for home Tests in the Championship), will play off the bench on Saturday, with either of Pienaar or Vermaak starting and then Meyer taking a handy look at veteran Du Preez’s potential 2013 mettle for the national cause some time during the second half against the Pumas.

The pack choice should be more straightforward, even given the Van der Merwe/Kruger conundrum for the No 5 shirt.

While Vermeulen is likely to be undercooked and may be expected to only provide some 50-60 minutes on Saturday, the coach will be keen to blend him anew into a loose forward combination also featuring flankers Francois Louw and Willem Alberts.

This was the trio who worked so well together on the Boks’ unbeaten end-of-season tour of the northern hemisphere in 2012.

So if the Stormers player does run out of steam at some point, either of Siya Kolisi or Marcell Coetzee could provide fresh legs on the side of the scrum with versatile Alberts switching to eight for the remainder of the fixture.

With a proven world-class performer like hooker Bismarck du Plessis champing at the bit to regain his first-choice status in that position, perhaps an upset recall to the run-on XV cannot be entirely ruled out.

A wiser forecast, however, is that he will have to wait for the admirable Adriaan Strauss to turn in a real stinker – and those didn’t come too often in the lengthy period Du Plessis was sidelined with his serious knee ligament injury – before the Sharks favourite gets a fresh look-in for the No 2 jersey.

Expect the Bok pack, then, to look very close to this: Tendai Mtawarira, Adriaan Strauss, Jannie du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth, Juandre Kruger (or Flip van der Merwe), Francois Louw, Willem Alberts, Duane Vermeulen.

 *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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