Boks get 'brains' back

2013-08-03 22:25
Fourie du Preez (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – A general ... my kingdom for a scrumhalf general.

That is a wish that may well have gone through Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer’s mind pretty often since his elevation to the national post last year.

The No 9 jersey has been a source of some instability for the Boks in the post-World Cup 2011 landscape: let’s face it, nobody has really grabbed the role by the horns and convincingly declared: “I am the future”.

Earliest Test combat this season only confirms how a combination of iffy form and also some injury misfortune kept the situation at scrumhalf much more volatile than Meyer and others would have liked.

Jano Vermaak made his debut, at the reasonably ripe age of 28, in the satisfactory season opener against Italy, before tearing a hamstring virtually on the hour mark to lay him low for weeks.

Then the altogether more Test-seasoned Ruan Pienaar (66 caps at present, albeit that plenty have come as a substitute) started at nine in the sloppy, laboured triumph over Scotland at Nelspruit and was, frankly, as poor as anybody in green and gold.

In fairness, he then upped his game quite substantially in a far more polished collective disposal of Samoa at Loftus, before making way towards the end to allow an experimental 13 minutes off the bench for another debutant, Piet van Zyl.

A further complicating factor for Meyer regarding the position was the much more recent news that Francois Hougaard has been ruled out for the rest of the year with an ankle problem.

Yet even before that mishap, the versatile and once thrillingly dynamic Hougaard – he had seemed such a smooth fit for a while as long-term successor to world-class Fourie du Preez both for the Bulls and the Boks – had been toiling all too painfully to recapture best form.

The situation had got so bad that there had even been suggestions that he was agreeable to consideration as a wing again -- a bit of a resigned, white-flag gesture if so -- before the grim medical verdict that put paid to any possible shift for the time being anyway.

I believe the Hougaard woe may have been something of a last straw as far as Meyer was concerned -- preceding and then crucially influencing his revelation on Saturday that World Cup 2007-winning luminary Du Preez is a little unexpectedly back in the mix, available for the home fixtures in the 2013 Castle Rugby Championship if also wanted beyond the first challenge against Argentina at FNB Stadium on August 17.

Of course there has been a slightly cynical and sarcastic reaction in some quarters, of the “heck, why not bring back Dawie de Villiers and Divan Serfontein as well?” type.

Du Preez, after all, has been wholly based in the moderate rugby climate of Japan (with Suntory Goliath) since the end of the last World Cup, when he wasn’t nearly as ineffectual, to my mind, as some charged he was.

He was not long back from serious injury then, so a little short of best sharpness and confidence, and there was a ridiculous expectation anyway that he simply reproduce his magic of the victorious 2007 campaign.

In truth, I would have felt a call-up for him last year – Meyer’s maiden season in charge – more likely, especially given the long and by all accounts fruitful association of the men at Super Rugby and Currie Cup level for the Bulls.

When no summoning of Du Preez’s services came at all in 2012, I did just begin, reluctantly, to join the school of thought that his Bok tenure was going to end on 62 appearances.

But I have also never stopped suspecting that – even taking into account the drawback of his playing at a relatively reduced tier in the Far East – the multi-skilled scrumhalf’s shelf-life potentially hasn’t expired at the highest level.

If younger men were excelling routinely at No 9 for the Boks, then fair cop; a “fall-back” on Du Preez might well seem ill-advised.

But nobody has grabbed that baton and run like the wind.

The Boks have been hamstrung at times, over the last 18 months or so, by the lack of a man of genuine vision and gumption in the spot; someone to sum up play as if by sixth sense, to vitally take pressure off his flyhalf in times of need and to possess a commanding tactical boot of his own.

All those are attributes Du Preez is indisputably known to possess.

Who is to say, too, that the player is necessarily too long in the tooth? He is 31 (and will be 33, come the next World Cup in 2015).

Justin Marshall played his last All Blacks Test aged a mere month shy of his 32nd birthday. George Gregan was 34 when he called time for Australia -- so was Agustin Pichot, the legendary Pumas star.

Those incredulous about the recall should also bear in mind that just because Du Preez is back in the extended squad equation – where he will automatically bring both mentorship and aura – doesn’t necessarily mean he is to be catapulted back to a start against the Argentineans.

This may be toe-in-the-water stuff; a chance to just see if he can still cut it at a level last sampled some time back.
But the general presence of Petrus Fourie du Preez, the widely-acknowledged little genius, in a Bok camp once more?
Personally, I find it most reassuring.

I’m all for it.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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