Meyer’s great scrum-half gamble

Date published: August 17 2015

No squad at the Rugby World Cup will be without its selection controversies, but Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer's plan for the scrum-half position can only be described as a gamble.

South Africa's game-plan has always and will continue to revolve heavily around their half-backs' ability to control the flow of the match behind their big pack, and Fourie du Preez's masterful execution of tactics was a key ingredient to the success of their 2007 campaign.

Meyer has made it clear that the former Bulls scrum-half is set to be his first-choice number 9 at the 2015 global showpiece, despite having not played in a single Test this year.

In fact, the 33-year-old has not played a competitive match – at any level – since February, when he featured in Suntory Sungoliath's 15-3 defeat to Yamaha Jubilo in the Japan Cup Final.

Having missed the November tour, Du Preez played just three Tests last year – with his last cap coming against a below-strength Scotland side in June 2014 – meaning that the Boks' opening World Cup game against Japan on 19 September is likely to be his first taste of international rugby in 15 months.

As a World Cup, Tri-Nations, Lions Series, Super Rugby and Currie Cup winner, Du Preez'z pedigree as one of the game's great scrum-halves is beyond question but to place so much faith in a player who has been away from the top flight for so long is surely a risk.

To be fair on Meyer, he is not rolling the dice on a player that is out to prove his potential. Du Preez, at his best, is a class act. But it is most certainly a gamble when considering the ageing scrum-half's injury record in recent years and lack of game time.

His sint in Japan means he'll be mentally and physically fresh, of that there is no doubt, but whether he'll be match-fit and ready for the bruising nature of Test rugby is up for debate.

The risk has been compounded by Meyer's selections over the past month with 31-year-old Ruan Pienaar starting every game this year and Cobus Reinach only getting a few minutes off the bench. If either of the older scrum-halves breaks down, the threat of a rusty Reinach being exposed is very real.

It's unlikely that Meyer would put as many eggs into one basket with any other player. He and Du Preez have a long history and the trust between them runs deep.

Du Preez was recruited by then-Bulls coach Meyer while still at Affies and moved across the road to Loftus Verfeld as soon as he finished high school. Together, they would go on to win back-to-back Currie Cup trophies and two Super Rugby titles.

As such, the veteran scrum-half is more than just a senior player in the Springbok squad. Much like Victor Matfield, Du Preez is highly regarded as a tactician and is part of the brains trust. His ability to play to Meyer's preferred pattern has twice seen him brought back into the Bok squad after long layoffs.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Meyer has long planned to use Du Preez as his first-choice scrum-half and the Rugby Championship was supposed to be the opportunity for him to get some game time in the build up to the World Cup. A medial knee ligament injury torpedoed those plans.

Meyer loves to plan ahead, but questions must be asked whether his stance on Du Preez shows a lack of flexibility.

The emergence of Jesse Kriel as a replacement for Jaque Fourie – and potentially Jean de Villiers – suggests that Meyer is willing to roll with the punches and adapt to circumstances, but it remains to be seen if he is willing to change his script if Du Preez isn't up to speed when he finally does play.

With South Africa's draw set to bring them face to face with the runners up of the 'Pool of Death' and then potentially the All Blacks in the semi-finals, the two-time champions are sure to play a massive role in deciding who will win the World Cup, if they don't do it themselves.

Team selection will never be an exact science, and loyality from coaches is often repaid by players with 'big match temperarament'. Du Preez certainly falls within that category and when on-song is able direct the course of a game like a puppet master, so there will be a lot of teams hoping this is one gamble that does not pay off.

By Ross Hastie