Div takes the cautious road
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
London – If this is to prove Peter de Villiers’ last game in charge of South Africa, he is not trying to spare himself the guillotine by playing any markedly daring cards.
Tuesday’s announcement at White City here of the Springbok team to play England at Twickenham on Saturday amounts rather to a (similarly risky, you could say) vote of confidence in the overwhelming majority of personnel who bungled the Grand Slam at Murrayfield last weekend.
The returns of Pierre Spies and Ruan Pienaar for Ryan Kankowski and Francois Hougaard respectively are the only alterations to the run-on XV, and they do not hint at any special new tactical direction for a game which could leave the underdog Boks with a two-from-four tour record and probably signal the demise of the coaching panel.
Three from four, including a tonic triumph slightly against the odds at “Twickers”, will make it harder for the restless bosses at SA Rugby to hit the extreme-measures button ... and De Villiers is putting faith in “who he knows” for his likely survival.
No, for all the mounting talk of Sharks sensation Pat Lambie getting a maiden start, he stays firmly rooted to the bench.
In many respects the retention of dead-ball points-plunderer Morne Steyn is understandable: all the weather signs still point to freezing conditions in the English capital on Saturday with a tipped maximum of 2 deg C and the possibility of snow showers.
So things may not get “sexy” and Steyn will be relied upon to bang over penalty opportunities that come the Boks’ way if they can ensure essential good field position in a grinding, no-place-for-the-faint-hearted tussle.
The clearly conservative selection also means retention of the not ideal centre combination of Jean de Villiers and Frans Steyn, the latter clearly not hugely suited to No 13 but staying firmly put there.
Again, this might not seem an especially progressive move by “Div” and company, but they will also be comforted by the physical presence Steyn offers in his channel – he is very likely to come up against the robust, 10-year Test veteran Mike Tindall there.
And partner Jean de Villiers assured a huddle of journalists after the team announcement that he would be “making a call to my old buddy Butch James at Bath” to find out a bit more about his own probable opposite number, the Auckland-born Shontayne Hape.
The general status-quo trend also benefits Zane Kirchner, who is a bit of a serial six-out-of-tenner for the Boks in performance terms – not bad, seldom sublime either.
But the Bulls man has the team’s confidence as a defensive entity, it seems, even if in the Edinburgh slush he sometimes handled the “soap” a tad poorly in situations of only limited pressure.
The man-mountain Spies will be expected to offer go-forward from No 8 after being a little oddly rested against Scotland after silencing some detractors in the first two Tests of the trip – Kankowski unceremoniously falls right out of the match-day 22.
Deon Stegmann, the fetcher, is one man for whom Twickenham is rather make-or-break: if he is proving ineffectual and sees very little action once again after half-time, he might plunge a fair way down the pecking order for next season when Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brussow and Francois Louw will hungrily rejoin the hunt for the No 6 jersey.
With England expected to present a formidable scrumming challenge, as they so often do, it is a concern for the Bok camp that both first-choice props, Beast Mtawarira (knee) and Jannie du Plessis (calf) are clouded in varied forms of doubt for Saturday.
Communications boss Andy Colquhoun did have a twinkle in his eye when, asked by Sport24 until when the established pair would be given the opportunity to recover fully, he replied: “Saturday morning”. But he was probably only half joking.
If coach De Villiers is a personality under mounting pressure, he did a pretty decent job of disguising it on Tuesday, fielding questions from both local and travelling media with a straight bat and often a smile.
Asked by Sport24 just how tempting it was to start with Lambie, he replied: “It’s always tempting. But it’s not rugby only that determines such decisions for you ... the weather has to be considered and not too go with the tried and tested might be stupid on this (occasion).”
Be that as it may, if it is Arctic-like on Saturday and the Boks’ supposedly tailor-made team struggles to come to terms with it, will this be the occasion when Div finally gets buried by an avalanche?