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Ken Borland

Charismatic Jean is back, but where to play him?

Posted on August 04, 2014 by Ken

The charismatic leadership of Jean de Villiers makes him a certainty for South Africa’s starting line-up whenever he is fit, but Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer’s toughest selection decision for the Rugby Championship revolves around his captain’s position.

While the return of Victor Matfield and his stepping into the captaincy while De Villiers was injured during the incoming tours certainly did not curdle the Springboks’ play nor team cohesion, Meyer made it clear on Monday that the Stormers man would return for the Rugby Championship.

But factors beyond Meyer’s control have dished up a selection quandary for the Springbok coach.

In the absence of the unavailable JP Pietersen and Frans Steyn, the injured Jaque Fourie and the out-of-form JJ Engelbrecht, there is a dearth of outside centres in the squad.

But the specialist centres who have been named – De Villiers, Jan Serfontein and new cap Damian de Allende – are all more comfortable in the number 12 jersey.

So who should play in the number 13 top? Serfontein was outstanding at inside centre during the incoming tours, while De Villiers has played outside centre several times for the Springboks. De Allende has all the attributes of a top international midfielder, but no experience at that level.

“We’ll certainly look at Jean at number 13, although I believe 12 is his best position,” Meyer said on Monday.

“Jan Serfontein was superb at inside centre during the incoming tours, while Damian de Allende has only played 13 at school. Damian can be a brilliant centre at international level, but we need to find the right position for him.

“I just know that when Jean played 13 outside Frans Steyn, although there were a few factors involved, we didn’t score many tries. I love Jean at 12 because of the way he organises play, he was probably the best inside centre in the world last year. He can crash the ball up, but he’s also got unbelievable hands and I prefer a number 12 who can move the ball and create space on the outside.

“We can’t just crash the ball up now in midfield because all the sides have big centres and I always want to get that width and get around teams on the outside. Jean is big and strong and he has unbelievable hands, but those three haven’t played much together,” Meyer explained.

But there are no guarantees yet that either De Villiers or De Allende are actually ready for Test rugby, having spent several weeks on the sidelines with injuries.

The Springboks began their camp in Johannesburg on Monday with medical examinations and, while the results of these are only likely to be known on Tuesday, Meyer admitted that there was some concern over the pair of Stormers centres.

“The players are busy with their medicals and a lot of them haven’t played for some time. Obviously Jean is a concern because although he has been training with Western Province, he hasn’t had any contact yet.

“The feedback we’ve had from Cape Town is that Damian has done well in training, but usually the problems only come out once we begin training.

“There are also guys like Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Beast and Pat Lambie who we just want to manage properly,” Meyer said.

The match readiness of Etzebeth will also decide the other main selection issue, which is the second row.

While Matfield has no real challengers for the number five jersey, who will play alongside him? Does Meyer opt for the experience of Bakkies Botha or the in-form Lood de Jager? Who then to put on the bench – Botha, Etzebeth or De Jager?

Meyer said the focus of this year’s Rugby Championship campaign will be the acquisition of the bonus points that were the major factor in 2013’s competition.

The fact that the Springboks had to chase the bonus point win in their last match against New Zealand – thereby ensuring the sort of open game the All Blacks love – was absolutely crucial in the final outcome.

“I think this year’s Rugby Championship will be the most difficult of the lot, historically the third year has been the most difficult for the Springbok coach.

“I think it’s going to come down to bonus points and if we don’t get bonus points against Argentina, like Australia and New Zealand did last year, and away from home if you don’t win, then we’re going to be under pressure to win both our games at home again. You must get bonus points to win this competition!

“We scored the most tries in world rugby last year, so we need to catch up to that momentum very quickly. I want to play total rugby, I want to play 15-man rugby, but our tactical kicking also really needs to improve. That was one of our downfalls last year, while New Zealand and Australia both had nines and 10s using tactical kicks,” Meyer said.

The absence of the injured Fourie du Preez is the major stumbling block to Meyer’s plans.

“Losing Fourie is an unbelievable setback, his tactical kicking is the biggest thing we’ll miss, but he is also the master on attack. He always picks up the right runners and last year we had a huge evolution in our attack in that we did it out of our own 22. Fourie is just an amazing tactical general,” the coach said.

“I want our scrumhalf to play more to the ball, to give the backline quick ball. We have a lot of scrumhalves in South Africa who are snipers and can score great individual tries, which is what the public sees, but we need a nine who can clean out quickly and give quality ball because we’re interested in team tries.”

The experienced Ruan Pienaar is probably the closest to Du Preez’s all-round skill set, with the utility talents of Francois Hougaard probably earning him a place on the bench.

The Sharks’ dismal SuperRugby semi-final performance – and the inaccuracy of the kicking by halfbacks Cobus Reinach and Lambie – is probably going to count against their chances of playing in the tournament opener against Argentina at Loftus Versfeld on August 16.

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