Scrum coach Pieter de Villiers says there have been significant benefits from the inclusion of Europe-based players in the Springbok squad.
The selection of players based abroad has been and continues to be a heated point of debate. Head coach Heyneke Meyer was initially reluctant to look beyond the borders of South Africa, but recently admitted to softening that stance, given the telling influence players like Ruan Pienaar and Francois Louw had.
Now the South African-born De Villiers, who enjoyed a successful career with Stade Francais and France, has added his voice to those endorsing the foreign legion.
‘Heyneke is best placed to answer questions about the impact of players that are based here [Europe],’ he began, ‘But I know he wants to select players who are in form first and foremost, and that has been the case with Gurthro Steenkamp, Ruan, Flo, Heinke van der Merwe and Schalk Brits.
‘They bring a certain maturity and balance from having been exposed to a different style and different conditions, which adds something new and valuable to the team.’
He added: ‘Heyneke involves all his coaches in discussing players. I follow the matches through Europe closely and have been able to see my views on the players based here with him.’
De Villiers has made a notable improvement to the Springboks’ scrummaging, elevating it from one that was at best capable of achieving parity against the game’s elite scrummaging units, to one that has troubled highly-rated eights this season. He attributes this to luck with injuries and the right balance of old and new, particularly in the front row.
‘Players have matured very well. We’ve had settled combinations in the front row and the experience we’ve got there has helped a lot to set a base for us. We’ve got a lot of young players in the team, and they’ve been introduced with a lot of experience around them, which has been good. Some of the front rankers have played some rugby in Europe, which is always a very different set-up. This has benefited our youngsters as well,’ De Villiers said.
Prior to the Ireland Test there were concerns about how the new scrum engagement sequence (crouch, touch, set) would affect the Springboks, who had never experienced them previously. They adapted well and De Villiers described himself as ‘happy’ with their performance there.
Speaking generally about the forwards, De Villiers said: ‘We want to build on our strengths. We’re in Europe with a lot of young players who’ve never played here before. That’s a good learning curve for them. On Saturday they’ll again be up against a very specific European game style and technique and that will be our focus.’
Steenkamp is expected to replace Beast Mtawarira in the front row, with forwards coach Johann van Graan letting slip a strong hint in this regard. This would see Van der Merwe, who had an immediate impact when introduced at Lansdowne Road, and CJ van der Linde competing for a spot on the bench.
With Jannie du Plessis expected to recover from an ankle injury, the remainder of the starting pack will be unchanged. The most notable alteration will come in the backline, with Juan de Jongh given an opportunity in midfield, probably at the expense of Jaco Taute.