Meyer in Mat­field dilemma

Lesotho Times - - Sport -

LON­DON — Hav­ing had one ele­phant prov­i­den­tially re­moved from the Spring­bok dress­ing room, an­other has snuck in – and just one as­pect of a fas­ci­nat­ing build-up to the World Cup quar­ter­fi­nals will be how Heyneke Meyer deals with the re­turn to fit­ness of Vic­tor Mat­field at a time when Lood de Jager is one of the form play­ers of the tour­na­ment.

South Africa face Wales at Twick­en­ham on Satur­day, and Mat­field has re­turned to full fit­ness, pre­sent­ing Meyer with a se­lec­tion headache.

If we can put it this way, the Spring­bok team has un­der­gone a form of nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion over the past month of in­trigu­ing Pool ac­tion, and if a pre-world Cup crit­i­cism of the squad was that there were too many se­nior cit­i­zens, the start­ing line-up that took the field against the US showed a bet­ter bal­ance be­tween youth and ex­pe­ri­ence.

Even be­fore the Boks left for England, Meyer was sweat­ing over the form of his cap­tain, 34-year-old Jean de Vil­liers, which was all the more in the spot­light be­cause of the blind­ing chem­istry that had taken place in the mid­field be­tween Damian de Al­lende and Jesse Kriel dur­ing the cap­tain’s con­va­les­cence.

De Vil­liers had shown tremen­dous courage to fight back from a knee in­jury that should have ended his ca­reer but a rusty come­back (and a jaw in­jury) eight months later against Ar­gentina at Kings Park sug­gested the World Cup would be a bridge too far for the old war­rior. A sec­ond jaw in­jury for De Vil­liers, in the face-sav­ing sec­ond Pool match against Samoa, re­moved him from the World Cup equa­tion, free­ing the coach to pick his best cen­tres with­out guilt.

In the same match at Villa Park in Birm­ing­ham, Mat­field, the new cap­tain, suf­fered a re­cur­rence of the ham­string in­jury that kept him out of most of the Rugby Cham­pi­onship and he has not played since. How­ever, the 38-year-old is ex­pected to be avail­able for se­lec­tion this week, pre­sent­ing Meyer with some­thing of a poser – does he bring back the vet­eran that he per­suaded to come out of retirement with this tour­na­ment in mind, or does he back 22-year-old De Jager, eas­ily South Africa’s best player over the course of the Pool games, and a ma­jor talk­ing point in the for­eign press.

De Jager, de­spite the face of a pedi­gree puppy, is a mon­grel on the field and go­ing into this week­end’s fi­nal round of Pool games, no other player had made more tack­les than the Chee­tah (50). At 2.05m (six foot nine) he is the tallest Bok at the World Cup, but is no gen­tle gi­ant and is equally at home in the No4 en­forcer role as he is at call­ing the line-outs at No5.

One school of thought is that De Jager could play the first 50 bruis­ing min­utes and then Mat­field would come on at a time when the knock­out game has reached a frenzy and a wise old hand would bring san­ity and cool­ness. Meyer might also con­sider that start­ing Mat­field would just about guar­an­tee a 100 per­cent line-out and few stolen balls, too, and then De Jager could come on in the sec­ond half and make the im­pact needed to win the game. It is a half-baked ar­gu­ment. And why not have Pi­eter-steph du Toit come on for De Jager or Eben Etze­beth rather than a 38-year-old with a sus­pect ham­string?

Meyer him­self pointed out that the Boks had lost only one line-out in Mat­field’s ab­sence (an over­throw by hooker Bis­marck du Plessis against Scot­land) and he said this was be­cause of the as­tute tute­lage given by (in­jured) Mat­field to De Jager and Etze­beth at train­ing ses­sions.

And there we prob­a­bly have it in a nut­shell. Mat­field should have come to the World Cup in the role of line-out coach. But will Meyer have the guts to spurn the in­flu­en­tial vet­eran? Or does the coach still be­lieve that Mat­field can repli­cate his Man of the Match per­for­mance in the 2007 World Cup fi­nal.

Mat­field cer­tainly is a player with his­tory of ris­ing to the big oc­ca­sions, but can he still do it, and at whose ex­pense?

If the mid­field and the sec­ond row have been touchy ar­eas of who to leave out for Meyer, the key po­si­tion of fly­half has been about who to put it.

The Boks ar­rived in England on Septem­ber 11 with the coach un­cer­tain who was his best No10, Pa­trick Lam­bie or Han­dré Pol­lard. The lat­ter had been the clear favourite in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship un­til the calamity at Kings Park against the Pu­mas and when Lam­bie started the fol­low­ing week in Buenos Aires, he had a cracker in lead­ing the Boks to a tac­ti­cally sound win. Hence his se­lec­tion ahead of Pol­lard for the Pool B opener against Ja­pan. One dis­as­ter later, Lam­bie was one of the scape­goats and back came Pol­lard. And he has been mostly ex­cep­tional. Even the most ar­dent Sharks sup­porter will now ac- cept that Meyer had to set­tle on one of the two and back him all the way through.

There were rum­blings of dis­con­tent in some quar­ters when Meyer did not give his fringe play­ers a start against a clearly understrength US team but the sage counter-ar­gu­ment is that once the coach has set­tled on his ideal XV, the more they play to­gether the bet­ter. The more Pol­lard plays with Fourie du Preez the bet­ter, the more De Al­lende and Kriel start in the mid­field, the bet­ter they will un­der­stand each other. The loose trio is also blos­som­ing the more they play as a unit. It is a typ­i­cally South African com­bi­na­tion. Where Aus­tralia and Wales play two fetch­ers to suit their fast-paced games, the Boks have three bruis­ers in Duane Ver­meulen, Schalk Burger and Fran­cois Louw (the only loose for­ward to at­tack the ball) to spear­head their power game.

In gen­eral, the Bok team is look­ing bet­ter bal­anced and in­fin­itely more con­fi­dent than a month ago, with a num­ber of play­ers hit­ting form, no­tably lead­ers in Bryan Ha­bana, Burger and Ver­meulen.

Here’s hop­ing the coach does not try and fix what is not bro­ken. Quar­ter­fi­nal fix­tures Oc­to­ber 17: South Africa v Wales, New Zealand v France.

Oc­to­ber 18: Ire­land v Ar­gentina, Aus­tralia v Scot­land.

South Africa vet­eran lock Vic­tor Mat­field hands Spring­boks boost.

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