1 year to RWC: Boks take shape

Heyneke Meyer (Gallo Images)
Heyneke Meyer (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – The ultra-veteran Victor Matfield a very realistic candidate, callow Handre Pollard likely to be first-choice flyhalf ... and a fading chance of any involvement by ever-controversial, mid-career Frans Steyn.

Things may change in the interim, but those can probably be described as particularly salient aspects of South Africa’s assault on the next World Cup in the United Kingdom – the Springboks begin their campaign on this very date next year, September 19, against Japan at Brighton’s Community Stadium.

Bok coach Heyneke Meyer, despite the inevitable public criticism he has copped in the inconsistent Bok showing in the Castle Rugby Championship thus far, has been soberly, reasonably deftly getting his ducks in a row for the big-picture requirement of the 2015 global showpiece.

He will be hoping that his charges can end the Championship on a high, with successive home victories over Australia at Newlands next week and then a particularly desirable first win in six cracks against the imperious, No 1-ranked New Zealand at Ellis Park a week later.

After that, the Boks have another end-of-year northern hemisphere tour -- where they will hope to repeat last year’s unbeaten record in conditions that will closely resemble RWC ones -- and an abbreviated 2015 Rugby Championship to fine-tune for the World Cup.

Ironically, the mood in South African rugby has probably lifted, more than anything else, after the successive nail-biting away reverses to the Wallabies and All Blacks, both of them matches which the Boks might easily have won with better composure and the rub of the green.

Any negativity in recent weeks was attributable more to the team’s desperately close-shave, sterile victories without bonus points previously against tourney minnows Argentina.

But particularly following the strong Bok showing in Wellington, even a few former All Blacks and other observers in that country are starting to warn that the still IRB No 2-ranked South Africans pose a genuine threat to their crown at the World Cup.

Meyer has been forced, largely by injury-related disruptions, to put out quite widely differing combinations in Test combat thus far in 2014, although in general terms he is slowly establishing the right blend between experience and youth, and building depth in most positions for RWC 2015.

On the one side of the scale, for instance, someone like 2007 World Cup-winning lock Victor Matfield has provided mostly gladdening evidence that, even at the particularly advanced age of 37, he still possesses the athletic prowess and hunger to run the important Bok lineout at one more RWC.

Of course Matfield will still have to be managed cleverly through the remainder of this year and then next year’s Super Rugby and Rugby Championship if he is to make the squad cut for the English and Welsh-staged jamboree.

Bear in mind, too, that gifted Sharks young gun Pieter-Steph du Toit ought to be back from long-term injury next season to bolster resources in the No 5 jersey for which he has been branded the likeliest heir apparent to the legendary Matfield.

Speaking of absenteeism, the Boks will be beefed in another critical area next year, all going well, by evergreen scrumhalf Fourie du Preez – both Ruan Pienaar and Francois Hougaard have tended to underwhelm in the role during his injury-enforced sidelining.

Du Preez must be delicately nursed through to the World Cup, where he would be the perfect foil just inside emerging flyhalf Pollard, whose assured, sparkling performance against the All Blacks last week was probably a watershed moment at No 10 for the country.

For all the ridicule sometimes generated when Meyer pins his faith in older, proven players, it needs to be remembered that in customers like the 20-year-old Pollard, 21-year-old Lood de Jager, 22-year-old Eben Etzebeth, plus the backline strides being made now by Jan Serfontein (21), there are exciting “balancers” to the trend.

In short, South Africa ought not to warrant being ridiculed as collective old crocks, come the World Cup.

It is true that, of late, certain lingering members of Jake White’s RWC-winning class of 2007 have probably seen their chances of fresh employment in 2015 downgraded: Juan Smith, for instance, after an innocuous return in Salta, clearly has huge work to do if he is to wriggle his way back even if his determination and pedigree is beyond dispute.

But another classy, calming and inspiring influence in the shape of Japanese-based centre Jaque Fourie – how can he possibly be called a has-been at 31? – seems to have every chance of reinforcing the midfield area.

Former Bok captain Bob Skinstad made the very good point on SuperSport’s Boots & All programme this week that Fourie remains a defensive organiser of enormous worth “who covers about three channels”.

The Boks are increasingly assembling healthy levels of security in most berths, even if there are exceptions like perpetually vexing tighthead prop: Jannie du Plessis gets worked into the ground at all levels of the game, although it is also worth chewing on the fact that main intended back-up Frans Malherbe has been out for months and the much younger front-ranker will be back in the mix next season.

With the Currie Cup domestic competition ticking along quite nicely – it is the great survivor of the rugby landscape – there are always some emotional, over-hasty clamours for various names to be meteorically promoted to Bok duty.

What needs to be taken into account is that the famous old tournament is now a very obvious two tiers down from international quality, and form in Super Rugby is a better yardstick of Test possibilities.

That said, if there are going to be some fast-track players from Currie Cup to possible Springbok involvement in time for RWC 2015, a name like Seabelo Senatla, the electric but also defensively staunch Western Province wing, certainly comes to mind.

Two versatile footballers who could be deemed in “mid-career” age-wise, Frans Steyn and JP Pietersen, both presently representing Japanese clubs, provide contrasting levels of assurance for possible deployment at the World Cup.

Pietersen should be right in contention to bolster the Boks either at wing or outside centre, whereas Steyn revealed in an interview this week that he believes his (53-cap) Test days may be over after his sensational quitting of the Bok camp in June, due to a monetary dispute with SARU.

Right now, there would be no guarantee the 27-year-old would actually walk into a Bok “first team” if his unavailability status suddenly changed.

Then again, isn’t he a dream sort of player to have in your World Cup squad, given his ability to cover all of fullback, centre or flyhalf with his booming boot and muscular qualities?

Always a single-minded character, you should probably never say never when it comes to Steyn ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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