Ruan Pienaar (Gallo)
Cape Town – There is plenty of good reason for Springbok enthusiasts and observers to be miffed over the missed opportunity to see something “different” at scrumhalf in the World Cup bronze playoff against Argentina on Friday (22:00 SA time).
In the injury-enforced absence of veteran maestro Fourie du Preez, coach Heyneke Meyer on Wednesday went the tried and trusted route – a policy he has so often, stoically favoured – by picking another fairly long-in-the-tooth campaigner, Ruan Pienaar, at No 9.
So often the back-up to Du Preez down the years, the Ulster-based Pienaar getting the nod has received the predictable lukewarm reception, at best, in both mainstream and social media.
Certainly scrumhalf is a berth the Boks will need pretty urgent renewal in, post-RWC, given the pretty likely, imminent announcement that Du Preez, 33, is to retire from Test rugby.
Younger blood is required in the important position, with a view to the next four-year cycle to RWC 2019 in Japan, so players like 26-year-old Rudy Paige (the current “number three” in the berth’s pecking order at the World Cup), Cobus Reinach, 25, and the mercurial Faf de Klerk, 24, are likely to either re-enter or be introduced to the radar.
Bulls-based Paige has been a patient, apparently popular yet overwhelmingly peripheral character – along with several other luckless souls – at the tournament, with a mere 18 minutes of debut activity to show against minnows the United States at the very Olympic Stadium where he should get another crack off the bench on Friday.
He looked suitably zestful and the possessor of a speedy pass against admittedly tiring, outclassed foes, yet would have done enough in many critics’ eyes to warrant a start against the Pumas in the “hangover” fixture which the Boks are nevertheless still under pressure to win.
Instead Meyer, in a cautious selection that largely retains faith in his core “A-team” of late, has preferred the well-established Pienaar – safe and functional rather than particularly game-breaking these days – for the vacant No 9 jersey.
I can think of two possible, reasonably valid reasons why the coach didn’t take the plunge and examine Paige’s credentials as a component of the initial XV.
The first could just be that, amidst the speculation over Du Preez’s potential exit from the green-and-gold cause, people have overlooked the chance that 87-cap Pienaar, 31 and massively unlikely to be in the 2019 mix, is on swansong appearance against Argentina himself.
The thought has struck this writer that, as with Victor Matfield’s return as captain for a definite farewell on Friday, Pienaar might be recipient of the proverbial “fitting send-off” on this occasion as well – we know that there is a likelihood several Boks may step aside from Test duty after the playoff game.
Since South Africa’s two defeats at the tournament this far, including last weekend’s semi-final disposal by bogey team the All Blacks, there has been at least one passionate call back home – from Bok prop stalwart and commentator Robbie Kempson – for the national side to become once again the preserve of strictly locally-based players to “put the pride back”, as Kempson branded it.
Pienaar has been a settled presence at his Irish franchise for more than five years and last represented the Sharks as far back as 2010. He is contracted to Ulster until the end of the 2016/17 campaign.
But if that Bok swansong suggestion is proved to be wide of the mark, a further justification for fielding Pienaar on Friday – Meyer has since backtracked a good bit on his initial low-gravitas valuation of the “bronze” game – is that the pitch could be heavy with some lead-up rain in London anticipated.
If the going is slow and the night chilly and damp, Pienaar’s particular skills, and deep knowledge of such conditions, are tailor-made for the clash, whereas Paige has largely been schooled in recent times on rock-hard Highveld surfaces.
Still, it will please many onlookers if the latter at least gets a generous session off the “splinters”.
The Springbok future has to be brought into the equation sooner rather than later …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing