There were two things that have happened over the past few days that should have eased away some of the worry frowns creasing the face of new Springbok coach, Peter de Villiers.
Gavin Rich writes for Superrugby that first it was announced that Jaques Fourie is now over his injury problems. The Springbok outside centre has not played yet this season, but looked set to make his return for the Lions in a Vodacom Cup game. There was also speculation that he could be called up by the Lions Super 14 side in Australia.
The second thing to happen, and certainly no less important, was the return to the field of Butch James. The Springbok flyhalf has been out for a couple of months after dislocating a shoulder early in the European club season, but by all accounts me made an excellent return for Bath this past weekend and has lost none of the form that made him such a hit at last year’s World Cup.
This will be great news for De Villiers in that while there is much young talent coming through on the local rugby firmament, he has pledged himself to a policy of continuity in selection. Even if he didn’t, the nature of the fixture list will probably dictate that it is a necessity to stick largely with the World Cup winning squad.
That is because, like last year, there is just one week separating the end of the Super 14 season from the beginning of the international season. The Super 14 final is scheduled for the last weekend of May, while the first test against Wales at Vodacom Park in Bloemfontein will be played on 7 June.
Whatever happens, De Villiers does not have much time to prepare his team for the Welsh tests, remembering too that he is a new coach and that the series against Wales and the one-off test against Italy will be complicated by the fact that we are returning to the old laws for these matches.
Even with the same team that finished off last year, it would be a tough task. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that De Villiers is going to struggle to retain the World Cup winning team purely on Super 14 form.
Here is why: Firstly, several of the World Cup stars, such as Fourie, have been out injured for most of the season. Among others, they include Juan Smith. Others are out of form, and you just have to look at the way the Bulls have struggled, and the number of first choice Boks on their books, to know that this should be considered.
Even down at the Sharks, where the franchise have yet to be beaten in the Super 14 this season, (Ed: He obviously wrote this BEFORE the weekend ) success is owed more to players who were not at the World Cup last year, such as Ryan Kankowski, than to the World Cup stars. Coach Dick Muir appeared to make this admission quite publicly when he dropped last year’s top try-scorer in the competition and World Cup winner, JP Pietersen. Ruan Pienaar is not the certainty he was a year ago.
Frans Steyn, so good at inside centre in the World Cup, has spent the season at fullback, flyhalf and outside centre, he has yet to wear the No12.
As the Superwrap Springbok barometers have consistently shown this season, there have not been that many established Boks making statements, the exceptions being the freakish Schalk Burger and the equally freakish, in his own way, Bryan Habana.
So the return to the playing field of Fourie and Smith, plus Pierre Spies, who was of course selected for the World Cup but never went, will be welcomed by De Villiers. At least these players were part of the Jake White mix for most of the past few years, and they don’t need to be reminded what international rugby is about.
If he wants to start the season though with a team that is stable, settled and experienced, which he should want in his first match in charge, then De Villiers cannot stop with just the reappointed skipper John Smit when it comes to expatriates playing overseas.
Well though Peter Grant has played for the Stormers, he will need James to be present if he is to make an easy transition into the national squad and complete a successful step-up to international level. And Bakkies Botha this season has given me the impression he is a bit like Jennifer Aniston without Brad Pitt when Victor Matfield is not around. In other words he is a bit lost, so that is a no-brainer too – the Toulon lock just has to play.
That would make three expats in a team of 15, with Percy Montgomery’s claims also worthy of consideration at fullback, where Conrad Jantjes is the best Super 14 player and Steyn the best bet among those with Bok experience.
That last option is not a bad one considering the excellent form of Jean de Villiers, who was not listed among my World Cup Springboks because he was injured in the first game, but who appears to be relishing the extra responsibility of being Stormers captain. De Villiers and Fourie being reunited in the midfield would mean Steyn having to play elsewhere, and fullback would be the best bet.
With seven weeks to go to the first test of 2008, my Bok team would look like this: Frans Steyn, Tonderai Chavhanga, Jaques Fourie, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Butch James, Fourie du Preez, Ryan Kankowski, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, CJ van der Linde, John Smit, Gurthro Steenkamp.
Sharksworld Note: This article was originally published on 16 April.Tweet