Peter de Villiers has made the right call in favouring No 8s Pierre Spies and Ryan Kankowski ahead of Luke Watson.
Watson was the Stormers’ best player in a disappointing 2009 campaign. He carried the ball strongly from the back of the scrum, he contested well at the breakdown and was a standout defender in a team that consistently stonewalled opponent attacks.
But despite being the form South African No 8, Watson was never going to be the right type of player to front the British & Irish Lions.
After announcing his training squad for the warm-up against Namibia, De Villiers said Watson was behind Spies and Kankowski in the pecking order. What he should have said was that Watson does not have the physical presence to match what should be a brutish Lions pack, and in a Test series where the set-pieces are going to be so important you’re better off with bigger 8s like Spies and Kankowski.
Super Rugby is not Test rugby in that it’s a looser version of the game. In turn, Tri-Nations rugby (a brand Watson is best suited to in a Test sense) is not the kind of rugby played when competing against the Lions.
De Villiers will opt for bulk and height when picking his forwards. The scrums are going to be important, but the lineout is the Boks’ best attacking platform. To have five quality lineout options is the aim, and should De Villiers pick Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Pierre Spies, he’ll get that. Add Andries Bekker and Kankowski off the bench and your lineout is king for 80 minutes. With Watson included, however, the Boks will lose one option entirely.
De Villiers has picked Cheetahs loosehead Wian du Preez with aim of using him as tighthead cover for John Smit, which is strange given Du Preez was never a tighthead option at the Cheetahs. Smit, who has only started two Tests at No 3, will be under pressure to perform. Jannie du Plessis was called up as an emergency option ahead of the England Test last November. We could see history repeating itself.
Ruan Pienaar should be fit for the first Test on 20 June, but there needs to be somebody with experience in the system waiting in the wings. Morne Steyn’s partnership with incumbent Bok scrumhalf Fourie du Preez should make him an automatic choice as a back-up 10, and his goal-kicking prowess won’t hurt arguments for his inclusion either. But Earl Rose has done little to be included playing off the bench for the hapless Lions. Be it at flyhalf or fullback, there are players more deserving than he.
Veteran Stefan Terblanche was unlucky to miss out and it seems at this stage Zane Kirchner could be an option at 15. Frans Steyn would be the best bet, but is also still fighting an injury.
De Villiers has also included Morgan Newman, a player that wasn’t even a second-choice centre at the Stormers. Although he may have talent and De Villiers may consider him one for the future, he is not likely to be thrown to the Lions. As far as centre-cover is concerned, De Villiers need look no further than Wynand Olivier who will come into the reckoning at the end of the Bulls’ Super 14 campaign.
By Jon Cardinelli