JON CARDINELLI writes a depleted Springbok side cannot be expected to win in Dunedin and yet there’s still much to be gained in terms of developing a new starting flyhalf.
The unavailability of key forwards as well as the inexperience of the likely starters and combinations suggests that Saturday’s Test will be more about damage control than anything else.
Last week’s forward performance against Australia was poor, and there’s little chance that this week’s showing will be much improved.
How can there be any expectation of a better performance in Dunedin? Injuries and suspensions have hit the Boks hard this week, and the pack that starts at the Forsyth Barr Stadium won’t boast one established Test combination.
But let’s back up a bit and consider what Heyneke Meyer had to work with at the start of the season.
Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha were not available, and neither was jack of all trades Danie Rossouw. Andries Bekker was injured. Schalk Burger was crocked. Juan Smith had made a decision to give rugby a break for a year. It wasn’t an ideal situation to start with, and has got worse as the season has progressed.
Bismarck du Plessis has been the biggest loss in recent weeks. Other players that have been injured include Coenie Oosthuizen, Pierre Spies, and Chiliboy Ralepelle while Ryan Kankowski has moved to Japan. The unavailability of this latter group has been a blow to the Boks’ forward depth.
Then Eben Etzebeth went and got himself suspended with a mindless headbutt on Nathan Sharpe. Then Jannie du Plessis and Pat Cilliers succumbed to injuries in the most recent Test in Perth. Going into this week’s clash in Dunedin, the Boks will be wanting for quality, synergy and experience in that starting pack.
In the past, there have been strong teams that have gone to New Zealand and been soundly beaten. What hope does this side have of succeeding where superior sides have failed?
A new front-row combination will start due to Jannie du Plessis’s injury, and Etzebeth’s suspension will also see a new face starting at lock.
Francois Louw is likely to start at openside flank given the challenge of the All Blacks’ loose forwards, but that would see Meyer making a further change to the starting pack. And while I believe Louw can be highly effective in this role, he is only into his second week playing under Meyer and the new structures. Don’t expect miracles from a new-look tight five, and don’t expect dominance from men like Louw at the breakdown.
It’s at times like these when some coaches will look to retain as many fit players as possible so as not to disrupt the team dynamic any further. It’s been reported that Meyer will stick with the backline that started against the Wallabies last week. That would be a mistake.
What can Meyer gain from such selections? The changes up front will compromise the Boks’ potential to play a more balanced game, and I’m sure they’ll keep things as simple as possible. However, it would be interesting to see how a new flyhalf performs. It’s a game the Boks are unlikely to win, and this may ease the pressure on less established flyhalf options like Pat Lambie and Johan Goosen.
Lambie shone in last year’s Tri-Nations when he started at flyhalf against the All Blacks in Wellington. A rag-tag bunch of forwards were soundly beaten by their New Zealand counterparts, and still Lambie managed to impress.
Meyer sees Lambie as a fullback but it’s at flyhalf where he can provide the Boks with more options in terms of attack and defence. He’s played there for the Sharks this season with some success, exhibiting a skill set that includes taking the ball to the gainline, sending it through the hands when the wide strike is on, and playing his team into good field positions via a great tactical boot.
Goosen showed the same all-round skills when he featured for the Cheetahs in Super Rugby, and has been tipped as the future Bok flyhalf. Meyer could make a powerful statement by starting Goosen this Saturday, but if he truly believes that the experience would do the 20-year-old more harm than good, then Lambie should wear the No 10 jersey.
The Boks will struggle to keep the All Blacks at bay, but that doesn’t mean that nothing can be gained from the fixture. Changes need to made, and replacing flyhalf Morné Steyn with somebody more equipped to meet the demands of a modern day 10 is a step that needs to be taken sooner rather than later.