In naming his XV for Saturday’s match against England at Twickenham the South Africa coach, Heyneke Meyer, spoke of his team’s “unbelievable depth” and the challenge he faces in selecting “only 31” to come back to Britain next year for the World Cup.
Cut against that challenge are his team’s erratic results: a historic win at the death against the All Blacks last month, then a heavy defeat to the Irish last weekend.
He has made five changes from that loss to the team that will face England, though he insists no one has been punished for last Saturday’s performance, in which South Africa spent large parts of the match in Ireland’s 22 but without converting the pressure into points.
While the starting line-up is significantly different, it is almost identical to the XV who finished the match in Dublin. Cobus Reinach will gain only his fourth cap at scrum-half, but will be reassured by the presence of the returning Pat Lambie outside him at fly-half.
Elsewhere, however, veterans of the 2007 World Cup win JP Pietersen and Schalk Burger return, on the wing and at the back of the scrum respectively, replacing the younger and less experienced Teboho Mohoje and Cornal Hendricks.
It means the team is not at full strength, and is to an extent more experimental than last week, but it is a beguiling selection for those hoping to decipher clues as to Meyer’s intentions at next year’s World Cup. There is no guarantee that elder statesmen such as Burger will keep out the young challengers in a year’s time, yet he will do so on Saturday, when last weekend he did not.
“We have a good enough squad to win every single game,” Meyer said. “We definitely want to look at certain individuals, but it isn’t an excuse if we lose and don’t play well to then say, ‘Oh we gave a guy a chance, and we learnt more from that by losing.’ That’s loser talk and I don’t believe in that.
“As a coach it’s easy to say things, to make excuses. I don’t want to do that, to say ‘that’s why we lost’ or ‘that’s why we didn’t play well’. It isn’t an excuse for performance.”
The statistics show a reluctance to kick from Meyer’s charges, which has not always been the case historically with Springbok sides, and a propensity to play running rugby and to keep the ball in hand. It pleases the crowds, but it is not without its risks.
“We are in a lose-lose situation. We have been kicking less than probably every single team for the last year and we still get criticised for kicking too much. Then you try and run and keep the ball in hand, but then you probably try and do that too much – that’s our biggest mistake. Then you concede 16 turn-overs, 12 penalties, and people say: why don’t you kick more?
“We should find the balance; we always want to play a ball-in-hand game but if your skill levels are not good enough, you need to be more conservative. We want to keep it in hand and score tries; we want to find the balance. It’s about being more clinical.”
Neither international rugby’s fixture list nor calendar have changed significantly in the past 10 years, and nor has the global climate, at least not that much, so Meyer’s explanation of South African shortcomings certainly has the ring of an excuse about it.
“We need to up-skill our players in South Africa and we need to make a huge step up before the World Cup by training 90 per cent of the time with a wet ball and in wet conditions.
“It would be easy for me to say there was nothing wrong with the game plan but if the players can’t keep the ball then as a nation we have to work at that. We were criticised for playing too conservatively and we’ve moved on but we still have to win games. I don’t want to move away from scoring tries and playing attractive rugby but we have to work harder with the players and probably a bit closer and sometimes slow down in games and build phases and have respect for the ball.”
Worryingly for England, South Africa have not lost at Twickenham since 2006, but on so many of those occasions the winning margin has been tiny. For their fabled winger Bryan Habana, Saturday’s game will be the 10th anniversary of his international debut, also against England at Twickenham.
“Scoring a try on my debut against the then world champions at the home of rugby with your first touch in international rugby is probably a fairytale start,” he said. “But we went on to lose that game, and my second game at Twickenham in 2006.
“It’s a special place to play rugby. When I started out one stand hadn’t been properly built yet. Now you’ve got 80 to 85,000 people singing Swing Low.”
Having helped defeat England in the World Cup final in 2007, Habana is as well positioned as anyone to comment on the changing fortunes of England in his 10 years at the top. “That game in 2004 was probably when England were at their best. Under Stuart Lancaster they’ve managed to restore a lot of pride in the jersey. They’ve been on a very steady upward curve, and they’re playing a brand of rugby that means they push a lot of top teams very close.
“They are a team that are growing and becoming one of the best in the world very quickly. When you came here in 2008 and ’09, you wondered whether England could withstand the southern hemisphere powerhouses. All of a sudden they can win now. It hasn’t been an easy road but they’ve got to the point where they’re respected globally.”
Meyer says he’s not thinking too much about the World Cup. “The winning and losing doesn’t make too much difference. What happens now does not have a big influence on the World Cup. In a sense it is almost better if you lose as your guys know they will then have to step up.
“I’m not saying we should lose of course but there are so many nuances. You can’t say because you have won here now you have the edge next time, because you then get complacent. The World Cup is a different thing. You have a lot of time to prepare – we have five weeks which we’ve never had – we have the team together and it’s a different challenge. This year the winning and losing doesn’t make a big difference in the World Cup.”
For his part, Habana remembers playing in his country’s record loss: “49-0 to Australia in Brisbane, and then the next year John Smit was lifting up that little cup above its head.
“I wasn’t part of the squad last time we won at Twickenham, but since 2006 it has been an enjoyable time in London for the Springboks winning. But I don’t think history is going to play a part on Saturday at all. It’s nice to look back into the history books and into the stats and see where we were as a team. But both teams this past weekend suffered defeats and come Saturday I don’t think history is going to mean anything. If you are going to rely on history to go out and win you a game on Saturday you’re going to be found wanting.”
South Africa team to face England
15. Willie le Roux
14. JP Pietersen
13. Jan Serfontein
12. Jean de Villiers
11. Bryan Habana
10. Pat Lambie
9. Cobus Reinach
1. Tendai Mtawarira
2. Adriaan Strauss
3. Jannie du Plessis
4. Eben Etzebeth
5. Victor Matfield
6. Marcell Coetzee
7. Schalk Burger
8. Duane Vermeulen
16. Bismarck du Plessis
17. Trevor Nyakane
18. Coenie Oosthuizen
19. Bakkies Botha
20. Teboho “Oupa” Mohoje
21. Francois Hougaard
22. Handre Pollard
23. Cornal Hendricks