Bekker injury opens door for Kruger

JON CARDINELLI writes that Andries Bekker’s untimely breakdown could see Juandré Kruger starting for the Springboks sooner than expected.

Bekker has long been touted as Victor Matfield’s successor. When the Bok legend retired at the end of 2011 he assured the South African public that the future of the game, as far as lineout management was concerned, was in good hands. After mentoring Bekker for four years, Matfield was ready to pass the baton.

Since his appointment in late January, Bok coach Heyneke Meyer has been open about the locking situation in South Africa. While the country is spoiled for choice in positions like hooker and loose forward, there is a dearth of good locks, especially in that specialist position of No 5. Meyer said he would have to count on Bekker and Kruger to perform this role in 2012.

Now that Bekker has been ruled out of the England series with a back injury, Meyer’s options are limited. Kruger has plenty of experience having played more than 50 matches for Northampton in the northern hemisphere competitions, but is yet to play a Test. Nevertheless, he may now be asked to wear that No 5 shirt in the series against England.

Not many gave the Bulls a chance after they lost six senior Boks at the end of last year. And yet, their pack has been impressive and Kruger has been one of the standouts. Taking over from Matfield at the Bulls in that No 5 position, he has ensured that the Bulls have continued to perform at the lineout and at the kickoffs. These two areas will be important against an England side that places an emphasis on forward ascendancy.

His partnership with Flip van der Merwe may also be considered a plus. Meyer will have just six days to prepare his Springbok 22 for England, and so he will be relying on existing combinations and structures. Now that the experienced and imposing form of Bekker is no longer in the frame, a Bulls locking partnership may be favoured at the highest level.

One specialist No 5 will not be sufficient, however, and Meyer will need to bring another lineout manager into the squad. The Bok coach has said that he will call on South Africans based at overseas clubs if there is a need to do so. In this case, Johann Muller is a strong option.

He’s not only an experienced player but has been in excellent form for Irish club Ulster, who made it to the final of the European Cup. Muller will also have played against many of the English players in the northern hemisphere competitions, and will be able to provide some insight regarding their strengths and weaknesses.

Meyer will name his 30-man squad on Saturday after the Bulls-Stormers derby. That squad will be without several key players if you consider that Juan Smith, Bekker, Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen are all still sidelined with injury.

Fourie du Preez will be named captain for the England series and Ulster scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar is also set to be included. Meyer has always been a fan of Francois Hougaard’s skills but the Bulls man hasn’t been in great form at the base of the scrum. One of Pienaar or Hougaard could be included as a utility player with the other providing cover for Du Preez.

As he has shown on numerous occasions for the Bulls and at the 2011 World Cup, Hougaard can be a devastating runner on the wing, and his physicality also makes him suited to a tighter contest. His kicking game, while not yet up to the standard of scrumhalves like Du Preez and Will Genia, will be a bonus in the back three.

Frans Steyn should also be included and considered a prime candidate for the No 12 position. Coenie Oosthuizen and Adriaan Strauss will be in line for Bok recalls, and as far as uncapped players are concerned, Kruger, Marcell Coetzee and Eben Etzebeth should all be in the mix.

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