Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has opted for the world class decision-making abilities and snappy and accurate service of Fourie du Preez as his starting scrumhalf for Saturday’s penultimate Castle Lager Rugby Championship clash with Australia at Newlands.
The match will be Du Preez’s first start in the Bok No 9 jersey since the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal, whereafter he left South Africa to play club rugby in Japan.
He did put in a strong cameo though as a replacement in the 73-13 rout of Argentina in South Africa’s last home match in the competition, so there won’t many who will quibble over his selection ahead of Ruan Pienaar.
As anticipated, Adriaan Strauss has also returned as the starting hooker and vice-captain, with Bismarck du Plessis dropping to the bench.
The other selection everyone was speculating on was the No 5 lock, and here Meyer has stuck with the continuity mantra by retaining Flip van der Merwe’s grunt ahead of the more dynamic and athletic lineout option offered by Juandre Kruger.
It was the scrumhalf question though that was most dominating the media speculation in the build-up to Wednesday’s announcement, and Meyer wasn’t shy to sing Du Preez’s praises in justifying his selection ahead of Pienaar, who has played most of the big tests in the No 9 jersey since Meyer took charge last year.
“First off I want to make it clear that I didn’t drop those guys (Du Plessis and Pienaar) as they both know where they stand and I can tell you now that Bismarck will be back as the starting hooker for the next match we play,” said Meyer.
“The trust there is between a player and a coach is one of the biggest things in rugby and we had an agreement before the international season started when Bismarck would start and when Adriaan would start. I am a simple person and a simple coach and I like to keep things simple. As far as possible I want to keep the squad together as a 23-man group, and the players know where they stand and when they are going to be used.
“That does not mean performance is not a factor in selection. It is very important, and I have told the players that what I am loyal to is not the individual, but to performance. We want what is best for the team, and while Ruan is an outstanding scrumhalf and has built experience, I just believe that Fourie is in a league of his own in that position.
“When he is present I feel like we have another coach on the field. He has enormous influence and leadership ability, and is a good organiser. Jean de Villiers as the captain is also a good organiser, but having Fourie there takes a lot of pressure off Jean.
“Fourie is a great player not just for his kicking, which everyone knows about, but also for his ability to take gaps and to put players in spaces. His speed of pass has really improved since he has been in Japan and that is a big plus for us.”
Meyer also stressed that both hookers have leadership ability, and that the pair were happy to share the vice-captaincy as they do the No 2 jersey.
“The hookers are both good leaders and whichever one starts assumes the vice-captaincy responsibilities,” said the coach.
“Hooker and scrumhalf are not the only positions where I feel we have good depth and that I am really comfortable with. That is the case with quite a few positions in this team. However, hooker and scrumhalf are the positions where the players touch the ball the most so I think it is particularly important that there the players are fresh and also get a chance to play.”
Flyhalf Morne Steyn will become the first player in that position to wear the Springbok jersey 50 times, and tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis will share the Newlands match with Steyn as a career landmark.
“I am extremely happy for Morne as his success epitomises what hard work can do. I am sure Morne won’t mind me saying that he hasn’t always been the most gifted player, but he has the most unbelievable work ethic, and he never misses training sessions. He’s always taking extra kicks at the end of the session.
“When he started he never even kicked for his school team. So he has shown that sometimes hard work can beat talent. The way he has come back from last year’s form slump has also been amazing and I hope he plays another 50 test matches for his country.”
Springbok team: Zane Kirchner, Willie le Roux JJ Engelbrecht, Jean de Villiers (capt), Bryan Habana, Morne Steyn, Fourie du Preez, Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Flip van der Merwe, Eben Etzebeth, Jannie du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss, Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: Bismarck du Plessis, Gurthro Steenkamp, Coenie Oosthuizen, Siya Kolisi, Ruan Pienaar, Pat Lambie, Jan Serfontein.