Johannesburg – The selection of Joe van Niekerk at No 8 for the first Tri-Nations Test against New Zealand in Wellington on Saturday is probably the only real surprise in the team announced by Springbok coach Peter de Villiers on Thursday.
Van Niekerk has been selected ahead of Pirre Spies – and Ryan Kankowski, who is ostensibly still being rested after a head injury – in a side that shows a third major shake-up in as many Tests since the first against Wales five weeks ago.
This might, in the fourth Tests of the season, at last be the side that De Villiers says he has had in his head from the outset.
He has certainly used the three incoming tour Tests to give all of his selected squad a run to show their worth, but it has done little in the sense of team-building (as opposed to team spirit and squad building).
De Villiers has brought back Butch James in at flyhalf for Frans Steyn who drops to the bench, dropped Gcobani Bobo (left in Cape Town) for Adi Jacobs at centre, has John Smit back at hooker after his two Saturday’s in France with Gurthro Steenkamp at loosehead in place of Tendai Mtawarira, selected fit-again flank Schalk Burger – who has had only 20 minutes of rugby in 10 weeks – in place of Luke Watson and brings in Van Niekerk as No 8 for Kankowski.
Spies and Kankowski are not even on the bench, with Watson getting the nod – perhaps as cover for Burger who simply cannot be fit for 80 match minutes.
Despite these changes the side is much as was expected. However, South African supporters will be perturbed by the fact the Springboks will run onto the field on Saturday with their fourth frontrow combination in four Tests and also their fourth loose trio combination of the season.
The scrum cohesion in particular could be a problem facet for the Springboks. The shuffled and reshuffled front three have been on the back foot in two of the three Tests played so far, the second against Wales being an exception – and now another, seemingly better, combination has to rectify the ills.
South Africa: Conrad Jantjes, Odwa Ndungane, Adi Jacobs, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Butch James, Ricki Januaire, Joe van Niekerk, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, CJ van der Linde, John Smit (capt.), Gurthro Steenkamp. Replacements: Bismark du Plessis, Brian Mujati, Andries Bekker, Luke Watson, Bolla Conradie, Frans Steyn, Percy Montgomery.