Is Boks coach De Villiers picking certain players more on reputation than current performance, asks Ashfak Mohamed.
The time has come for Springbok coach Peter de Villiers to make some tough selection calls for the home leg of the Tri-Nations series.
Having won only one match out of three, albeit an historic first-ever triumph over the All Blacks in Dunedin on their overseas tour, the Boks have not looked a settled unit.
There have been changes in every match of De Villiers’s tenure so far this year, which shows that he is either not sure of who his best 15 players are or, more tellingly, that he is picking certain players more on reputation than current performance.
At flyhalf, Butch James continued his good World Cup form against Wales, but in the three Tri-Nations Tests, he was not convincing at all. He is unsure of his tactical kicking, he seems to have great difficulty in getting his line away, while his biggest strength, his defence, has also let him down.
James did not have nearly the same influence on proceedings as either Dan Carter or Matt Giteau, and if on top of that he misses tackles, then why is he in the team?
De Villiers will to think carefully about giving Stormers flyhalf Peter Grant a proper chance to prove that he can cut it at Test level.
The one-off Test against Argentina in Johannesburg on August 9, the week before the massive Tri-Nations game against the All Blacks at Newlands, is the ideal opportunity for De Villiers to see if Grant is good enough.
Grant was the top South African flyhalf in the Super 14. This was his second season at that level, so surely he must now be given a fair chance in the Bok side.
De Villiers must also make a firm choice at No 8. Joe van Niekerk was a surprise selection against the All Blacks. He did not stand out in the Wellington Test, but improved in Dunedin. He was then left out in Perth, with Pierre Spies starting. But Spies, as he has throughout this year, again looked off the pace.
Ryan Kankowski was the top SA No 8 in the Super 14, but unfortunately got a bad knock to his head against Italy. He may have been still recovering from that knock, but he should also start against Argentina, as he has terrific pace and is ideally suited for the new-era fast-paced game under the ELVs.
And, talking about loose forwards, where does Luke Watson fit into all of this? De Villiers started with him at flank in Schalk Burger’s injury-enforced absence against Wales, and then played him off the bench against the All Blacks.
Perplexingly, Watson was dropped for the Wallabies game, even though the Aussies had two specialist fetchers in George Smith and Phil Waugh.
De Villiers will obviously not contemplate dropping Victor Matfield, but it has to be said that Matfield was well below his best in two of the three Tests. On Saturday he uncharacteristically dropped a few kickoffs, did not really feature in general play and did not look to be a particularly inspiring captain either.
Andries Bekker has made a telling impact every time he has come off the bench, so Matfield needs to step up and remind us that he is the best lock in world rugby.
Francois Steyn’s status in the squad also has to be clarified. Is he a flyhalf, outside centre, fullback or utility back? I would leave him on the bench to cover all those positions, if he must be in the squad. Steyn did not have a good Super 14, so what is his claim to a Bok spot? Last year’s performance at the World Cup? That should not be the yardstick for a place in the team.
Other positions under scrutiny include fullback, right wing and scrumhalf.
Conrad Jantjes has been mostly outstanding this year for the Stormers and the Boks, while Percy Montgomery is the veteran with the calming influence.
At No 14, JP Pietersen leapfrogged Tonderai Chavhanga and Odwa Ndungane to start the last two Tri-Nations Tests, but has not impressed. De Villiers should make use of Chavhanga’s extreme pace in the drier SA conditions.
Ricky Januarie was the match-winner in Dunedin with a superb solo try, but he struggled to clear the ball from the breakdowns in Perth. Whether that was his fault or the forwards not protecting him is up for debate.
Fourie du Preez made an encouraging return from a hand injury for the Blue Bulls in the last two weeks, so De Villiers will have to decide what he is going to do there.
The Boks can still grab the Tri-Nations, but they have to probably win all three Tests at home to have a chance of clinching the trophy.
They certainly can do it, but it will be up to De Villiers to show conviction and make a few brave selections if his team are to triumph.Tweet