Boks must be wary of fatigue
November 2, 2009
Schalk Burger has plenty to prove after a difficult year © Getty Images
Peter De Villiers Bakkies Botha Heinrich Brussow Schalk Burger Fourie du Preez Victor Matfield Pierre Spies Morne Steyn
Fatigue, rather than France or Ireland, will be South Africa's biggest opponent on their end-of-season tour of Europe.
While the Springboks have had a golden year after clinching a series against the British & Irish Lions and winning the Tri-Nations, the question has to be asked whether matches against the likes of France and Ireland at this stage of the year is a bridge too far. The fatigue-factor among some of South Africa's leading players was already evident as the Sharks slumped to defeat against the Cheetahs in the semi-final of the Currie Cup.
The South African management is also in for a logistical challenge as they have picked 37 players and additional management members for tour games against Guinness Premiership sides Leicester and Saracens. On top of that, the internationals against France and Italy are in the rather unusual destinations of Toulouse and Udine respectively.
On the surface it should not be all that difficult for a world champion outfit that has swept all before it this year, but this is going to be a tough tour. As far as the composition of the squad is concerned, there were a number of surprises among the fringe players, though the Tri-Nations winners are all there barring Jean de Villiers, Frans Steyn, Juan Smith and Ricky Januarie.
On the evidence of South Africa's last game - an epic 32-29 victory over the All Blacks in Hamilton - Steyn and De Villiers will be sorely missed. However, coach Peter de Villiers does not believe in picking overseas-based players, which means one of Wynand Olivier or Adrian Jacobs will have to cover in midfield, while Zane Kirchner is likely to play fullback.
The other option is to field Ruan Pienaar in the No.15 jersey, but Kirchner should have the inside track as he is a specialist in the position. As far as Smith's blindside jersey is concerned, it would seem logical to stick Schalk Burger in there, completing the loose-trio with Heinrich Brüssow and Spies. One of the other options being bandied about in South Africa is to move Spies to the flank and let Ryan Kankowski play at No.8.
Burger is a player to look out for on this tour. He has not had the best of seasons with form and suspensions, but made a huge statement of intent when he came off Western Province's substitutes bench in their 19-21 Currie Cup semifinal defeat to the Blue Bulls. Burger's big tackle on Du Preez is now the stuff of legend, though perhaps even more remarkable was how quickly the Bok scrumhalf got up.
It's good for South African rugby that he did as the Bok halfback will again be the man around whom the game plan revolves. Outside of him, fly-half Morné Steyn is sure to be a key man.
South Africa have made some questionable selections in the squad, noticeably fullback Riaan Viljoen, flanker Davon Raubenheimer, No.8 Ashley Johnson and the choice of back-up hookers in Chiliboy Ralepelle and Bandise Maku.
All have shown promise, but the Bok selectors possibly had better options, with the likes of Lionel Mapoe (wing), Tiaan Liebenberg, Adriaan Strauss (both hookers), Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen (both loose forwards) all unlucky to miss out. Centre Juan de Jongh - equally at home in the No.12 or No.13 jersey - is definitely a talent to look out for.
There is also a recall for prop Heinke van der Merwe, who has not played since April due to a serious knee injury. The talk is that he is set to be converted into a tight-head and is seen as a long-term successor for John Smit.
All in all, South Africa will be in pretty good nick at full strength, the only doubt being whether their energy levels are high enough to finish their season with a clean sweep on tour. If I had to put my head on a block, I'd say two wins from three tests will be a fair harvest, with a fired-up Ireland in Dublin a very tough challenge for a final game.