Meyer in Matfield dilemma
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.