All eyes on Bok backs

JON CARDINELLI writes there’s a strong possibility that Heyneke Meyer will return from Europe with significant answers to nagging backline questions.

The forwards will need to produce a consistent showing over the next three Tests if a largely experimental backline is to benefit from the three-week experience.

The relatively experienced forward unit has already turned in some match-winning performances in 2012, and so Meyer will arrive in Europe with big expectations. In terms of the backline, however, Meyer will be more hopeful than expectant.

The Bok coach will be looking for answers when the new-look combinations front Ireland, Scotland and England, and those answers will shape the way he prepares for the 2013 season and beyond.

It’s no secret that Meyer wants Fourie du Preez back in the Bok mix. Du Preez’s club commitments to Suntory Sungoliath have precluded him from the current tour, but the peerless scrumhalf is set to return to the Bok set-up in 2013.

In the interim, Ruan Pienaar will be tasked with playing a Du Preez-type role. Pienaar has done a terrific job this season, and a strong showing this November will ensure that Meyer goes into 2013 with two outstanding scrumhalf options.

Providing the Bok forwards deliver, the selected flyhalf will have a great opportunity to make a statement. Meyer has already stated that Johan Goosen is his preferred flyhalf, but a season-ending injury to the rising star will force the Bok coach to develop a strong alternative in the next three Tests.

Pat Lambie is expected to start at least one game on this tour, and his tactical game will be under scrutiny. Lambie has impressed with strong tactical contributions in the Currie Cup play-offs, and if he carries that form through to the coming Tests, he will return from this tour as a genuine alternative to Goosen.

Why then was Morné Steyn included in the touring party? It’s a fair question considering that the young Elton Jantjies is also part of the group.

The simple answer is insurance; if Lambie doesn’t live up to his promise, then Steyn will be thrust back into the hotseat. However, if Steyn continues to struggle when presented with an opportunity, this tour could mark his last appearance for the Boks.

Northern hemisphere conditions prescribe a more tactical approach, and Meyer is also mindful that the 2015 World Cup will be staged in this part of the world. This tour presents Meyer with the perfect opportunity to realise two goals: to determine who will be Goosen’s understudy in 2013, and which flyhalf has the skill-set to contribute at a World Cup played in these conditions.

Overseas club commitments and injuries have left the Boks light on backline experience. Du Preez and Jaque Fourie are currently playing in Japan, while Bryan Habana and Frans Steyn will not tour because of serious injuries. These are players who have featured in more than 50 Tests for the Boks, and have won Tri-Nations and World Cup trophies.

Much of the backline leadership responsibilities will fall to the team captain, Jean de Villiers. It will be interesting to see who Meyer favours to partner De Villliers in midfield. Juan de Jongh has played alongside De Villiers at Super Rugby level, and would prove a suitable stop-gap measure on this tour, although his lack of size and physicality at Test level has always been a concern.

Jaco Taute was selected at No 13 during the Rugby Championship, and made some costly defensive mistakes. Meyer has also made it clear that he views Taute as the future Bok No 15. If Taute is going to settle into that fullback position, he must be given the opportunity on this tour. As is the case with Lambie, Meyer will be watching Taute’s tactical kicking progress closely.

There’s nothing within the ranks of Ireland, Scotland or England that should scare the tourists, and yet stronger Bok teams have been felled on these tours to the north. If the Boks don’t go into these matches with the right mindset, that is that they need to subdue and conquer the opposition forwards before anything else, then this team could fall short of their primary goal: three Test scalps.

But if this competitive forward unit does front, then the backline will have the platform to impress Meyer. And to be clear, we are talking about impressing the Bok coach through accurate tactical kicking, ground-gaining ball-carrying, and good decision-making. This is the skill-set that will be required at the 2015 World Cup.

Meyer needs a three-from-three return on this tour to restore the status quo. With a view to the long-term, however, he needs several backline players to make a strong statement against Ireland, Scotland and England. Meyer needs these men to show that they can thrive in northern hemisphere conditions.

It is the realisation of the latter goal that will see the team making greater strides next season and building towards a genuine title assault in 2015.

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