Coach gambling on half-fit Springboks

JOHANNESBURG • South Africa are so obsessed with experience going into the Rugby World Cup that they have included scrum-half Fourie du Preez in their squad although he has not played for seven months.

A survivor of the 2007 World Cup-winning team, du Preez has not featured in a Test since being injured against Scotland in the middle of last year.

The last competitive match for the 33-year-old was with his Japanese club in February and a proposed comeback during the 2015 Rugby Championship failed to materialise because of a training-ground knee injury.

Lured out of international retirement in 2013, he admits it will take time to regain his Test-level sharpness. "Parts of my game will not be ready," he conceded. "I will have to find them during the World Cup. I do not have a choice."

The Springboks have suffered a glut of injuries during the build-up to the global rugby showpiece in England.

Du Preez, skipper and centre Jean de Villiers and No. 8 Duane Vermeulen are the most notable of the walking wounded, but several other likely first choices will fly to England this weekend looking distinctly rusty.

De Villiers has been particularly unlucky as he broke his jaw against Argentina last month, just weeks after completing a miraculous recovery from a career-threatening knee injury.

Columnist and former Springboks official Mark Keohane believes coach Heyneke Meyer is taking a huge gamble.

"It is loyalty at its most extreme and the legacy of the coach will be determined by the battered warriors (to whom) he has given free World Cup passes," he said.

"He will be remembered for making the bravest call, or his tenure will be defined by an act of lunacy in picking so many crocked players."

Meyer says all 31 players should be available for the Pool B opener against Japan on Sept 19 in Brighton.

But reports suggest de Villiers, capped 107 times, could miss several games in a pool that also includes Samoa, Scotland and the United States.

Reigning South African Rugby Player of the Year Vermeulen, who epitomises the physicality of the South African pack, is recovering from neck surgery and last played in May. But Meyer is prepared to gamble as the Springboks seek a record third world title.

"You need experienced players because they know how to handle pressure," explains the 47-year-old, whose four-year contract expires after the tournament.

"When the knockout stages come, the pressure will really be on. Guys with cool heads, who will not concede stupid penalties, are going to be needed."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2015, with the headline 'Coach gambling on half-fit Springboks'. Print Edition | Subscribe