With the International Test window just around the corner (11 July), the Rugby news in South Africa is being dominated by Springbok preparations for what lies ahead in 2015… The World XV game, the abbreviated Rugby Championship and 1 further match against Los Pumas and of course the Rugby World Cup from 18 September to 31 October 2015.
Of course, it could also be argued that we do not have anything else to talk about, because South African sides have all been done and dusted with Super Rugby for a couple of weeks already, whilst 2 New Zealand sides are still contesting it… on their ownsome lonesome!
Maybe it is a blessing in disguise though, for overall Springbok preparations, as they now have much more time to get their ducks in a row for the international scene, and to re-introduce the injured and rehabilitating players…
BUT, and it’s a big BUT… the injury list seems almost as long as the list of fighting fit candidates and that is a big concern.
In this article, we focus on what Heyneke Meyer says and feels about his chosen Springbok squad, and we have a good look at the fitness and injury update from the Springbok camp.
An injury list of critical proportions, limited preparation time, unrealistic expectations and even some uncooperative franchises.
These are just some of the obstacles South Africa’s national team coach Heyneke Meyer has to deal with in the build-up to the Rugby World Cup.
Yet, the passionate Springbok mentor still has the time to make light of the situation as he faced up to yet another media scrum.
Meyer, who is adamant that he wants to win “every single Test”, admitted he is in a catch-22 situation at the moment.
“In an ideal world you want to start with your best matchday 23,” Meyer told a media briefing in Johannesburg – as the Boks stepped up their preparations for the start of their international season, which begins against a World XV at Newlands on 11 July and is followed by The Rugby Championship.
The Bok coach admitted he has a crisis at lock, especially No 5, and also at centre.
And he has limited time in which to get all his injured players match fit for the Rugby World Cup.
“We probably have to use The Rugby Championship as preparation for the World Cup,” the Bok coach said, adding that it’s not easy starting against a strong World XV, then play Australia away and return home to take on New Zealand.
He made it clear winning the Rugby World Cup remains a top priority.
Meyer also admitted that he is on a hiding to nothing.
“It will be tough to get going in our 1st 2 to 3 matches,” he said of the World XV encounter and The Rugby Championship encounters with the Wallabies and All Blacks.
Getting his selections right for those games – where it is important to win, but also to blood some fringe players – means he is going to face the usual barrage of criticism from the unrelenting public, with unrealistic expectations.
“I thought I’ll get a medal for picking Brüssow,” Meyer quipped about the barrage of criticism he has received in recent years.
“However, now everyone is unhappy that I didn’t pick Jaco Kriel. I thought everyone would be happy I didn’t choose Pierre Spies, but now people send me messages saying I should have. There’s also Arno Botha and in the Cape they’re swearing at me for not picking Nizaam Carr.”
Meyer made it clear that he doesn’t make emotional decisions.
“Heinrich is 1 of the most passionate Springboks around, but I think he lost a lot of speed and some of his strong points in the last couple of years. But it really helped him to go to Japan, he came back lighter and he was playing brilliant rugby. I’m very sorry he got injured because he was playing his best rugby for a long time and he made me change my mind. I wanted to give him a couple of Tests.”
Meyer said it is important to select the right players for specific roles.
“I think Francois Louw is close to being the best openside in the world and he can jump in the line-out,” the coach said, adding: “Every 2nd guy in the defensive line needs to be able to steal ball, but you want your openside to be able to secure your own ball.
“Marcell Coetzee is not a specialist opensider, but he’s an unbelievable player – because he can play both sides and can come off the bench as an impact player.
“But if Francois Louw is injured then you want a specialist and it’s very difficult to choose between Brüssow and Kriel.”
He said the ongoing criticism of his selections shows the passion of the fans.
Meyer admitted that lock, and specifically No 5, remains a problem – which is why he is looking at players outside his current squad.
Cheetahs lock Lodewyk de Jager is still recovering from his horrific elbow injury, while Flip van der Merwe has made himself unavailable for Bok selection – with Andries Bekker unable to get leave from his Japanese club.
This effectively leaves Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth and the Lions’ Franco Mostert as the only fit and recognised locks up for selection at the moment.
“We spoke to 1 or 2 other guys,” Meyer said, adding: “Juandre Kruger is still an option and also Alistair Hargreaves, because you need a specialist at No 5.
“If you don’t win your lineouts, you don’t win your games and I believe Victor sometimes gets unfair criticism. But whenever he plays, he wins most of his lineouts and the opposition’s, and he sometimes puts in the most tackles.”
Meyer said there was still hope that they would be able to get Bekker back in the Springbok squad.
Midfield is another major headache.
The Stormers’ Damian de Allende and the Sharks’ JP Pietersen (more a utility than a specialist centre) were the only fully fit midfielders in the Bok squad – with the rest either injured or placed on a conditioning programme.
Jean de Villiers, Francois Steyn, Jan Serfontein and Lionel Mapoe were all on the injury list, while Jaque Fourie was in need of some much-needed fitness training.
Springbok captain De Villiers, who has miraculously recovered from a serious knee injury, could make his return off the bench in next week’s match against the World XV in Cape Town.
However, he is in desperate need of game time and is likely to turn out for Western Province in a couple of Currie Cup warm-up matches.
“You want to build combinations at centre going into the World Cup, but we have time now,” Meyer said.
“The difficult thing is you can only pick 3 centres, and Damian de Allende is the only man standing at the momentum and he has been awesome.”
De Villiers and Pat Lambie, also returning from a serious neck injury, will probably only get about 20 minutes at the back end of the encounter with the World XV.
Meyer refused to play the blame game, despite the fact that some franchises played key Springboks to a standstill and contributed to the huge injury toll.
“A lot of the franchises helped, but they were also under pressure to perform and I have a great relationship with the franchises,” Meyer said.
“Yes, a lot of the players are injured and we have to deal with that. There is hardly any centres or locks who are fit, but any player once he gets into that Bok jersey he will perform.
“I believe in the players and our coaching team.”
Meyer also revealed that there was never any animosity between him and injured Sharks centre Frans Steyn – despite the latter’s decision to walk out on the national team in the midst of a contractual dispute between the player and the South African Rugby Union.
“I have never had a fight with Frans,” the coach said.
“I always told Frans, if he is available he must play for his country – I don’t care if a player is 19 or 39 he must be able to put his body on the line for his country.
“I will have a 1-on-1 (with Steyn), but he’s probably going to be out for 2 months with his shoulder injury,” Meyer added.
Springbok team doctor Craig Roberts on Monday said each of the injured players in the squad will be managed individually in terms of when they return to full training or playing in a match.
A squad of 48 players gathered in Johannesburg on Monday morning. Of these, 15 are suffering from a range of injuries or require rehabilitation. The latest injury was to Fourie du Preez, who tore medial collateral ligaments in his knee during a training session with his Japanese club last week.
The other injured players are Heinrich Brüssow (arm), Schalk Burger (groin), Lood de Jager (elbow), Jean de Villiers (knee), Pieter-Steph du Toit (knee), Patrick Lambie (neck), Lionel Mapoe (knee), Cobus Reinach (hand), Jan Serfontein (hip & knee), Frans Steyn (pectoral muscle) and Duane Vermeulen (neck).
Furthermore, Coenie Oosthuizen underwent surgery on his neck last week and hasn’t joined the squad, Jaque Fourie will undergo a strict conditioning programme in the coming weeks, Willem Alberts was withdrawn from Monday’s training session because of an ankle niggle.
Roberts said the injury situation was not ideal at this stage of the season. He added that Du Preez should be out for between 4 and 6 weeks.
“Every effort will be made to ensure as many of the injured players get game time before we finalise the squad for the Rugby World Cup,” said Roberts.
“Obviously we would’ve liked to have a squad with fully fit players available, but we have to play the hand we are dealt and will work with all of these players individually over the coming weeks.
“Players will be managed individually and we could send them back to their provinces to get game time, but that will be done in consultation with the unions and only when necessary.”
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer said that it was great to see the excitement and spirit among the players, despite the injury problems.
“I’m very excited to get going – it’s been a long few months since our last match, but we’ve worked incredibly hard behind the scenes and done an unbelievable amount of research and planning,” said Meyer.
“It would’ve been great to hit the ground running with a fit squad, but because of the situation we’re in, we will have to use our next 5 matches before the Rugby World Cup to experiment with our depth and see where we need cover, which could mean players outside the current squad can still force their way in.
“Managing the injured players will be tough and I really hope we can give as many of them as possible enough game time so that they are in peak physical condition for the World Cup.
“Having said that, we realise we’re not the only team in this situation as injuries are part of the game everywhere. We still want to win every single game though and this season will provide a massive challenge yet again, as there is no such thing as an easy game.”