Cape Town - Bakkies Botha, Pat Lambie and Willie le Roux look like the players who have been asked by Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer to show if they will sink or swim in the Test match against Scotland at Murrayfield here in Edinburgh on Sunday.
Every Test match is important for every player, but occasionally it is more important for some than others. Botha, the veteran lock who has returned to international rugby after an absence of two years, needs to prove he can still play international rugby, Lambie needs to confirm his potential to be one of the two flyhalves now that Johan Goosen is back in the game, and Le Roux has to show he can stand up to the challenge of playing fullback in the northern hemisphere.
Meyer knows what he can get from Eben Etzebeth, who has been wearing the No 4 jersey that used to belong to Botha for the past two years, and he also knows what he can get from Morne Steyn and Zane Kirchner. He saw Lambie at fullback for only a quarter of a game last week because of Steyn’s injury, but Le Roux played well when he came on as a replacement and another strong showing, this time in the starting team, could bolster Meyer’s confidence in his ability to play there more regularly.
The inclusion of Botha, Lambie and Le Roux are three of five changes made to the team that beat Wales 24-15 in the opening match of the tour in Cardiff last weekend. The other changes see Gurthro Steenkamp come back at loose head for Beast Mtawarira in what can be seen as a rotational selection, while Adriaan Strauss returns to hooker at the scene of one of his most memorable games in the Bok jersey.
To refresh memories, Strauss was the man of the match in the corresponding game at Murrayfield on last year’s tour. He capped a strong all-round performance by being on hand to dot down off a driving maul before later in the game producing a Jean de Villiers impersonation in scoring a crucial intercept try just when the Scots seemed to be coming strongly back into the game.
“I do remember that game very strongly and it was a special moment for me but this is a new game and we have to start from scratch on Sunday,” said Strauss.
It’s hard to pinpoint what Strauss would need to do to usurp Bismarck du Plessis’ right to be recognised as the first choice hooker. Du Plessis is arguably the most valuable South African player at the moment for the way he adds to his core value as lineout thrower and scrummager with his scavenging of loose ball and allround presence in the tight loose.
But at least Strauss can be contented by the knowledge that Meyer has made a commitment to rotate him with Du Plessis, which means he will be getting opportunities. And Steenkamp, given that Meyer seems determined to develop Coenie Oosthuizen as a tighthead, is probably assured of his place as Mtawarira’s back-up for the time being.
For Botha, Lambie and Le Roux, however, the ante is considerably higher, for they may not get another chance to stake a claim.
“I have been very impressed with the impact Bakkies has made within the squad since he has been involved again, and I am not just saying that for PR purposes,” said Meyer.
“I had a meeting with him this morning and discussed my plans for him. I have seen the value he brings, and would like him to be involved. But first he has to show me that he is still capable of playing international rugby, and that means he needs to perform on Sunday. Bakkies knows that.”
In Lambie’s case it comes down to him regaining the authority he showed on the last tour to the northern hemisphere, when he started in all of the Tests.
“It’s funny how it has worked out. Last year Morne (Steyn) was overplayed and tired and we brought Pat in because he was fresh, and this season it looks like the same thing has happened, with Pat getting his chance again,” said the coach.
“I have been very happy with the work Pat has done in training. I have been getting him to take the ball flatter and to work on his kicking. His place-kicking wasn’t great in the Currie Cup final but he has been working really hard at all aspects of his game and I have confidence in him.”
Whether that confidence will extend though to selecting Lambie as one of his two flyhalves ahead of Steyn or Johan Goosen next year is what Sunday will decide. With Frans Steyn listed as a utility back among the 10 players awarded Springbok contracts until the 2015 World Cup, and Lambie not in that contracted group, it also isn’t that clear that there will be a place for Lambie at fullback either.
So there is much to gain and much to lose for the young Sharks player on Sunday, as there is for the wily veteran Botha and for the exciting but sometimes inconsistent Le Roux.
The status of this game as an examination of the ability of some players to be part of the Bok group going forward to 2015 extends beyond just the starting team. Siya Kolisi, one of the players contracted, is bracketed with Willem Alberts in the starting team as the Alberts will undergo a late fitness test on a sore shoulder joint. If Alberts does play, however, Kolisi will drop right out of the match 23, with Marcell Coetzee filling the role of loose-forward back-up from the bench regardless.
That is an indication that Meyer wants to see Coetzee, who was good in his first few Tests for Meyer at the start of the new coach’s reign last season but hasn’t featured much since then, show what he can do. With Schalk Burger possibly set to return to the mix next year if he regains his old mojo, Coetzee needs to make full use of whatever opportunity he gets.
The other injury concern building up to Sunday is reserve flyhalf Steyn, who didn’t train with the team on Wednesday.
“I am a bit concerned about Morne because he is still not training but I know him, he is a fighter, and I am sure he will be able to play,” said Meyer.
Springbok team: Willie le Roux, JP Pietersen, Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villiers (captain), Bryan Habana, Pat Lambie, Fourie du Preez, Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts/Siya Kolisi, Flip van der Merwe, Bakkies Botha, Frans Malherbe, Adriaan Strauss, Gurthro Steenkamp. Replacements: Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira, Coenie Oosthuizen, Eben Etzebeth, Marcell Coetzee, Ruan Pienaar, Morne Steyn, JJ Engelbrecht.