De Jongh stars in Bok thriller
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Juan de Jongh has just added himself quite handily to the cause of Springbok backline depth.
The young Stormers/Western Province centre was one of the new stars to shine most brightly as an experimental Springbok XV pulled out just enough stops to pip Wales by three points in a rousing, high-scoring Test at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
This dingdong match reminded one a little of a 2004 meeting between these sides at the same venue, although both were much nearer full strength then and John Smit, Victor Matfield and Joe van Niekerk started it, as they again did among some rather greener teammates six years on.
On that occasion, the Boks scored four tries to three and held out for a 38-36 scoreline; here it was three tries all - although Wales got two of theirs in the last seven minutes - and South Africa kept their composure for a 34-31 result.
When you consider the World Cup champions’ scrambled preparation for this encounter, including some unsettling late selection shakeups, and the fact that several of them had just come off a Super 14 final, just beating a fired-up Welsh combo before 60 000 of their passionately choral faithful was a good outcome.
We may only know further down the line whether this questionable exercise will have dug damagingly into the game-time “overdraft” of certain players, but give the Boks their collective due: they were up for it, warts and all, despite the various elements of adversity.
The truth was that they had to be, for Wales spent generous periods on the front foot at either end of the game with the Boks handsomely bossing the middle stretches and not surrendering composure even as they went a shock 16-3 behind in the 21st minute.
And a couple of well-established franchise combinations, I felt, proved pivotal for South Africa as the home fire was narrowly doused.
One was the midfield alliance between De Jongh, making his maiden run-on in green and gold, and his street-wise Stormers colleague Jaque Fourie, and the other the all-Bulls pairing in the second row of Matfield and Danie Rossouw.
The lock combo excelling was important, because the Springbok scrum found itself under slightly worrying pressure at times and their lineout presence went a long way to neutralising that disadvantage – Wales ever more gradually got the collywobbles at lineout time.
Matfield and Rossouw were industrious in the general exchanges, too, with the former making some important tackles and latter doing some effective ball-carrying.
One Rossouw off-load on the drive led to a try for Dewald Potgieter, who was really warming to Test rugby at flank before going off nursing what looked like a side or rib complaint late in the third quarter.
But behind the boiler room the De Jongh-Fourie firm certainly played their part as well, the outside centre’s mere seasoned presence and trusty organisational skills making life that much more agreeable for De Jongh at his international baptism.
The plucky little No 12 was clattered into unceremoniously by his opposite number, the brawny British and Irish Lions star Jamie Roberts, early in the match, but there was no way he was going to let it unnerve him.
De Jongh had shown throughout the Super 14 that the old-fashioned, go-in-low tackling technique still has its rewards, and in Cardiff he only underlined it, keeping Roberts -- who is some 20kg his physical superior -- and other Welsh marauders admirably in check.
But just as encouragingly, De Jongh’s silky attacking skills came to the fore as well.
Just short of the hour mark, he scored the kind of solo try he had registered only a fortnight earlier in the Super 14 semi-final against the Waratahs, his stepping ability reducing the defence to ruin as the Boks moved into a powerful 31-19 advantage before a spot of complacency -- and perhaps fatigue in some cases -- gave them a few grey hairs near the finish.
The nice thing about De Jongh, remember, is that he can wear No 13 with equal aplomb and could feasibly serve his country on the wing should it be deemed either necessary or desirable.
So he was a big beneficiary from this assignment.
Another to do his stocks no harm was Ruan Pienaar at flyhalf. He produced some magical passes on occasion, was suitably authoritative with his boot even if not quite to the “Morne Steyn” extent, and looked confident and unflustered for a player who has had his positional tribulations in recent times.
Frans Steyn was competent in the last line of defence, where his big frame came in handy in some stressful defensive situations and his ability to weigh in with the odd long-range penalty was again a productive tool.
This was certainly no picture-perfect Bok display, as you might have suspected for so early in the Test season, with once-off, try-conceding howlers from the likes of captain Smit and later the still-cold substitute Zane Kirchner, and games of rather fitful excellence from Ricky Januarie at scrumhalf and Van Niekerk among the loose forwards.
But at least the Boks weren’t tripped at their unorthodox first hurdle of 2010, and they deserve credit for that …