There may be an upside in that the depth of his squad will now be tested in a dead-rubber test, but Heyneke Meyer’s plans to use the final match against England at Nelson Mandela Stadium as a build-up or dress-rehearsal for The Rugby Championship look set to be disrupted.
The Springboks arrived in Port Elizabeth on Sunday with three injured players who are considered doubtful for the match, while it has also been confirmed that Frans Steyn will not be playing in the game as it clashes with his wedding.
Patrick Lambie (ankle), Willem Alberts (knee) and Juandre Kruger (neck) are to be assessed at the start of the preparation week, with a decision likely to be made in a couple of days rather than on Monday.
“We will give ourselves time to assess the injuries and will make a decision on each player by Wednesday,” said Meyer.
Of the three doubtful players, Kruger is the most unlikely to play. He was carried from the field on a stretcher during the second half of the 36-27 series-clinching win over England, and with Kruger already only in the team because of the injury that forced Andries Bekker out of the series, his probable absence will leave a massive hole.
Fortunately the news from Cape Town is that Bekker is making a speedy recovery from the injury that ruled him out of the Stormers’ recent match against the Bulls in Pretoria, and there is even a chance he may be back in time to face the Lions at Newlands in a fortnight.
But that does not help out Meyer as he considers his options for the last match of a series he would like to win 3-0 so his team can take some momentum into the more testing Rugby Championship that looms on the horizon.
He will want to avoid the trap that his predecessor Peter de Villiers fell into in 2009, when he made wholesale changes to the side for the third dead-rubber test against the British and Irish Lions and saw his team soundly thrashed.
MOMENTUM AND CONTINUITY
De Villiers did feel he gained something out of it in terms of showing him what the fringe players were capable of, or perhaps more accurately ‘weren’t’ capable of, but Meyer appears to want momentum and continuity ahead of the big clashes with the All Blacks and Wallabies later in the year.
“There are injury problems and some of the guys are tired so I might try a few new guys but at the same time I don’t want to lose continuity,” said Meyer after his team’s win at Coca-Cola Park.
“A lot will depend on the injuries and who is available, but The Castle Championship is just around the corner and I want us to go into that tournament with continuity and momentum. We need to get our game right before then so that we can go into the tournament with some confidence.”
Although England came back to nearly spoil what for the duration of the first half was shaping as a perfect performance from the Boks, Meyer seemed a lot more content with the Johannesburg win than he was with the opening match of his tenure in Durban seven days earlier.
And rightly so for the Boks were highly impressive before almost predictably losing intensity later on, when the inevitable physical and psychological weight of the bruising Super Rugby season took its toll.
“There surely aren’t people out there who expect a team to play 80 minutes of perfect rugby when they are playing only their second game under a new coach,” said Meyer.
“We lost our way a bit in the second half because our first-phase play wasn’t good enough and we made mistakes that allowed England back into the game, but we played really great rugby in the first half. In that period we showed glimpses of what we are capable of and where we want to go as a team.
“That is the type of rugby I am looking for the team to play. Injuries played a part in the second half, but I don’t want to make excuses. We made a few unnecessary mistakes from set phase, but credit to England for the way they played in the second half.”
With Victor Matfield retired and Bekker still out, Meyer is going to have a problem replacing Kruger if the worst fears are confirmed. Franco van der Merwe of the Lions is in the squad and will probably be called into the starting team, with the other option being to include Flip van der Merwe, who finished the Coca-Cola Park test.
But selecting Van der Merwe as a No 4 lock might place too much responsibility on the impressive Eben Etzebeth so early in his international career, for although Stormers forwards coach Matt Proudfoot is working on turning Etzebeth into a player who can fulfill both lock roles, he hasn’t started any big games at No 5.
Meyer also faces a conundrum at centre in the absence of Steyn, with Wynand Olivier not doing enough in either of his appearances on the field during the series so far to justify his rather bizarre preference of the Bulls player ahead of Juan de Jongh, who has in the past looked far better equipped for international rugby than the current midfield reserve.
Steyn’s absence is a potential double whammy as he would have been a contender to fill in for Lambie at fullback should the Sharks player be ruled out.
With Steyn definitely out of the game, Gio Aplon, who many believe should have been there in the first place, will come into the equation, although Joe Pietersen, provided he is fit again, would be the better selection as he is the starting fullback at the Stormers.
There was no indication late on Sunday afternoon whether Pietersen was being called up, so Aplon must be considered the favourite, provided of course Lambie is forced out of the game.