Fourie du Preez may well be the key to the Springboks’ chances of winning the Tri-Nations – and national coach Peter de Villiers would be wise not to accede to the clamour for the removal of Butch James until he has seen the Natalian play with his World Cup halfback partner from last year.
Gavin Rich writes in the Cape Argus that the man rated by some critics at last year’s World Cup as the best player in world rugby, and the architect of South Africa’s whopping 36-0 annihilation of England in a pool game, could hold the key to several aspects of the Springbok game as they look forward to the home leg of the southern hemisphere competition.
The scrumhalf was unavailable through injury for the first stages of the international season, but the reports on his progress have been pleasing to those who understand the enormous role that Du Preez plays for the Boks in terms of reading the game and tactical application.
He played off the bench for the Bulls two weeks ago, and last week he was sharp when he played in the starting team against the Boland Cavaliers.
‘The Bulls No 9 was told in no uncertain terms that he was a big part of the Bok plans’
A few weeks before the Boks gathered for their training camp in Somerset West in May, there were rumours that Du Preez was not rated by De Villiers, and this played a role in the scrumhalf’s uncertainty over his future.
He was considering a couple of overseas options, which, had he taken one up, would have been as big a loss to South Africa as Victor Matfield’s short stint in Toulon was.
However, De Villiers put a spike in that talk when he and his fellow coaches summonsed Du Preez to the training camp for a meeting.
It is understood that the Bulls No 9 was told in no uncertain terms that he was part of the Bok plans, which was why he promptly committed himself to both the Pretoria union and to South African rugby until 2010.
Although Ricky Januarie scored the try that ended a 10-year drought against the All Blacks, Du Preez has vastly superior allround attributes – and if you are going to play one of these two scrumhalves off the bench, then Januarie is the impact player, Du Preez is not.
You need Du Preez’s fine tactical brain, not to mention probably the best kicking boot of all international scrum-halves, there from the outset, and at this time where so much power is being vested by the coach in the players when it comes to determining onfield tactics, Du Preez’s selection is a no-brainer.
With Du Preez there, the pressure to take on the major proportion of the field kicking role will no longer be on James, whose form in the away leg of the Tri-Nations was a concern.
It was good to read this week that De Villiers is backing James, and while there have been calls for him to be replaced, there are a couple of points to ponder, and maybe questions to ask and answer.
Firstly, was it a coincidence that the best performance that James has turned in this season was in the opening test against Wales in Bloemfontein?
That was when the Boks stuck closest to last year’s World Cup blueprint (of which James and Du Preez were such an important part) and where they were their most controlled.
As the flyhalf and chief decision-maker, James may be the man most confused by the messages coming from his coach, and certainly for much of this Tri-Nations season he has looked betwixt and between.
In Wellington, we even saw signs that he had lost the discipline he showed when being mentored by Eddie Jones, with that old swinging arm coming back into the mix during a frenzied opening half.
But then there is a perhaps even more important point to consider.
What of the impact of the ELVs?
When James played so well against the Welsh in Bloemfontein, the Boks were playing to the old laws.
As he had come straight from the English club season with Bath, the flyhalf would have felt more at home than his teammates, and this is perhaps why another Europe-based player, skipper John Smit, also played so well in that game.
The ELVs would have a huge impact on a player like James in the sense that he is a gainline player, he likes to take it up, he likes to take the ball flat.
The five-metre rule at the scrums has prevented him from doing that, and he is now getting the ball much further away from the opposing defence than he was this time last year. The defensive lines can now turn him in the direction they want him to go.
Ironically, the problems being experienced by James could have a precedent in the form fluctuation we saw earlier in the year from the man many feel should replace James for the home leg of the Tri-Nations – Peter Grant.
It has largely been forgotten, but Grant made an awful start to the Super 14, contributing to early defeats which cost the Stormers a semi-final place.
But once Grant started to adjust to the ELVs, and became more comfortable with them, his game improved dramatically and he ended the season as the form South African flyhalf in the Super 14.
Maybe the same thing will happen to James if he is given a chance to adjust, and perhaps if he is given a bit more direction from his coaches.
There is another thing about Du Preez which was touched on by former England flyhalf Stuart Barnes at last year’s World Cup – he also plays an extremely under-rated role in getting his forwards on to the front foot.
Barnes wrote that Du Preez was the real brain of the Springbok pack. Thus far Victor Matfield and Gary Gold appear to have done a masterful job in getting the forwards organised, but they could do with a bit of onfield help. Come in, Fourie du Preez.Tweet