The Springboks have made eight changes, most of them forced by injury, from the side which ended a disappointing Tri-Nations with a narrow home defeat to Australia on September 4, with head coach Peter de Villiers turning to youth to kick-start their Grand Slam tour with a much-needed victory and also ease the pressure that has been building on him all summer.
Flanker Deon Stegmann (24), will win his first cap in the Boks back row while the back three sees Gio Aplon pick up his 10th cap at full back having made his Test debut this summer and South Africa’s young player of the year Bjorn Basson, 23, picks up his third cap on the wing.
There could be a ninth change if centre Jean de Villiers fails a late fitness test on a groin injury sustained in Western Province’s Currie Cup final defeat to the Sharks last Saturday, with the man of that match Patrick Lambie, who scored 25 of the victor’s 30 points from fly-half, in line for a Test debut as his replacement.
Not that Matfield is concerned. In fact, he said he was excited by the inclusion of the youngsters, particularly his Blue Bulls team-mates Basson and Stegmann.
“I think it’s great if you have a look,” Matfield said. “Quite a few young guys are starting. Bjorn Basson was outstanding, scoring the most tries ever in the Currie Cup. Then Deon Stegmann coming in, I’ve been playing with him with the Bulls and he’s really been an outstanding player for us in the last two or three years in the Super 14.
“Then, Patrick Lambie, we all know what he did in the Currie Cup final, so he’s done very well in pressure games and Willem Alberts as well has been outstanding in the last few weeks. He’s a powerhouse and I feel he will come through his fitness test and do a great job for us.”
Coach de Villiers also saw the logic in Stegmann joining a pack containing four other Blue Bulls behind an all-Sharks front row, back rower Juan Smith of the Cheetahs being the other forward.
“Everybody knows we didn’t have a long time to prepare and the sensible thing is to blood all the other guys in, but to make use of the resources that we do have, Stegmann played with Pierre (Spies) and Bakkies (Botha) and Victor for quite a while so they understand each other and it makes sense for us to bring him into the starting line-up.”
It is in midfield, though, where de Villiers is chiefly concerned. Having already lost the services of centres Wynand Olivier, Jacques Fourie and Juan de Jongh, he will be loathe to lose his namesake, although if Lambie does make his debut as a starter at inside centre the coach will said he was comfortable with a potential partnership with Zach Kirchner.
“We expect an onslaught from Ireland and we hope to go for the guy who is steady on defence, so that is the reason that Zane got the nod,” Peter de Villiers said before admitting that the inclusion of Jean de Villiers was “very important to us” given the strength of Ireland’s midfield where Gordon D’Arcy partners Brian O’Driscoll.
“They’re not only world class in midfield, but I think they’re the leading country when it comes to first phase rugby,” the coach said of the Irish. “They can hold onto the ball for long, long periods; they’re persistent, they never give up. So we’ve got our work cut out for Saturday and I think all of us do understand that.”
With the Springboks managing just one win in six Tri-Nations encounters this summer and a world title defence less than a year away in New Zealand, coach de Villiers conceded that this tour, which also takes in Tests with Wales, Scotland and England as well as a showdown with the Barbarians, was particularly important for South African rugby.
“We’re a proud nation. It hurts whenever we lose any Test. Last year when we came here it wasn’t a very good tour and it hurt a lot. We under-performed a bit but then again, we work very hard on our shortcomings and what we didn’t do right.”
Meanwhile Saracens South African director of rugby Brendan Venter has been fined €25,000, €15,000 of which has been suspended, after being found guilty of misconduct by an ERC disciplinary hearing in Dublin yesterday. Venter was handed the charge over comments he made to the media in the wake of his side’s Heineken Cup defeat to Leinster at Wembley last month.