Another disjointed display at Twickenham and the Bok management face some tough selection decisions ahead of the 2009 British & Irish Lions series.
Several injuries will force a front-row reshuffle, but other than that, the incumbent combinations should remain intact. Jean de Villiers made the point on Tuesday that Twickenham represents the Boks’ final opportunity to gel before the Lions arrive in South Africa. His point is valid, but for some players, it represents a last chance to stake a claim for a place in that unique series.
Peter de Villiers has favoured consistency in selection in the last two matches and there are unlikely to be unforced changes when the side to face England is announced on Thursday. It could all come together at Twickenham with the Boks’ execution and tactical appreciation in perfect synch, or the Boks could win in an unconvincing manner as has been the unfortunate trend on this UK tour. If it’s to be the latter, there will be more questions in the build up to the Lions series, and thus one of the major objectives of this end-of-year tour will be defeated.
The Boks missed Fourie du Preez at Murrayfield, and De Villiers will hope the Bulls scrumhalf recovers from his quad strain before Saturday. Du Preez’s recovery is doubly important in that his involvement will affect the Boks’ performance and also allow his halfback partnership with Ruan Pienaar further opportunity to develop. As it stands, the pair has started one Test together and produced a promising showing at the Millennium Stadium.
Pienaar’s personal development at pivot is a priority, but it’s still too early to say whether the move has been a success. While his tactical kicking was superb against Wales, Murrayfield witnessed an inconsistent showing. He missed the calming influence of Du Preez, and with his pack getting mauled by the fiery Scots he suddenly had to take on added responsibility in relieving the pressure.
It’s hard to say how much next year’s Super 14 will count towards national selection, as the Bok management intimated this UK tour is an opportunity to allow combinations to settle. Pienaar could be the man at 10 next June, but this could largely depend on how he fairs at Twickenham this weekend. If Pienaar is exposed against England, it will not bode well for the Lions series. The problem here is De Villiers has devoted the entire November tour to Pienaar’s development and hoped he will find synergy with the players around him. If Pienaar fails, do the Boks bring in another player in from the cold?
Earl Rose was picked as a specialist flyhalf for this tour but will see no game time. Frans Steyn can play 10, but has been used off the bench in other positions. Peter Grant was the understudy to Butch James at the beginning of the year, but doesn’t seem to be in the national picture, and James himself has been ignored. If this tour was really about preparation for the Lions series, then surely you’d have to have one of the more established pivots on board as a contingency. De Villiers said he knows what he has in James as a flyhalf, and that’s why he didn’t pick him to tour, but if James is recalled next June, it will be the first Test he’s played in eight months. Surely that affects the synergy in the back division. James has a lot of Test experience, but will a two-week training camp be sufficient to bring him up to speed?
It was a mistake to ignore James for this tour, as the Boks will head into the new year with just one flyhalf option. Much hinges on Pienaar’s performance this Saturday as the Boks search for that elusive synergy and a wave of confidence to ride into the new season. Another stutter, and it’ll be back to square one.