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Jean’s role a fresh Bok puzzle

2015-09-03 17:11
Jean de Villiers (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Springbok supporters are 13 days away from knowing just how close national coach Heyneke Meyer is to finally being able to boast a full-strength stock of ammunition.

On Wednesday, September 16, four days after their arrival in the United Kingdom, Meyer is scheduled to name his match-day squad for their RWC 2015 opener against Japan at Brighton’s Community Stadium (September 19).

There have been positive noises from the Bok camp ahead of departure that everyone in the 31-strong squad should be ready for consideration by then, which seems a surprise development considering earlier suggestions that certain personnel would only be able to contribute from a couple of pool games in.

Still, being “available” is one thing – it doesn’t automatically mean a player is realistically suited to going a full 80 minutes if necessary, and it is quite likely that some intended first-teamers will be filtered into action off the bench against the minnow, presently 14th-ranked Japanese.

Certain players need solid game time more urgently than others, with men falling into that category including key links at No 8 and scrumhalf, Duane Vermeulen and Fourie du Preez respectively.

The former comes off neck surgery, and has not been in competitive rugby since May 30, when he led out the Stormers in a 42-12 Super Rugby triumph over the Cheetahs at Newlands.

Du Preez is even more ring-stale, not having played for a few months more than that.

If they are confidently cleared to play medically, it makes sense to get that pair as busy as possible (or read: ideally starting) against Japan who, with respect, should not offer either the physical or pure competitiveness threat of next RWC foes Samoa and Scotland.

This duo have always been the intended first-choice candidates for their important berths in the spine of the team, so getting them to best sharpness for tougher assignments ahead is a critical requirement.

But Meyer and his immediate lieutenants also have to grapple once more the thorny issue of how – and exactly where – to filter back tournament captain Jean de Villiers.

Soon after he broke his jaw against Argentina in Durban, to only complicate his comeback from that serious knee injury, the expectation was that De Villiers was pushing it to be ready for either of the first two Pool B fixtures.

Is he really going to be ready to run out at the front of the first XV against Japan?

It would almost make Meyer’s life easier if it is decided the 34-year-old midfielder is best advised to contribute to that game as a second-half substitute, because then he could stick with the youthful incumbent centre pairing of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel – pretty good again in the uplifting revenge victory over the Pumas in Buenos Aires.

But whether it is for the first match or a bit beyond it, at some stage the coach is going to have to decide which of the No 12 or 13 positions to start his skipper from.

In his Test comeback in that collective team nightmare at Kings Park a few weeks ago, when the street-wise De Villiers frankly wasn’t as innocuous or off-the-pace as some critics and fans were all too speedy to suggest, the versatile Stormers player occupied the No 13 jersey with franchise colleague De Allende at inside centre.

Kriel, of course, had a rather problematic -- and presumably now firmly jettisoned -- switch to right wing that day.

Since then, there seems a growing school of thought that maybe De Villiers pulling strings closer to the action at twelve – easily his most familiar role – is a better course of action if he is properly fit, which then means the slippery Kriel could well become his new partner.

De Allende was one of the most creative and assertive South African backline players during Super Rugby 2015 – albeit that that wasn’t saying too much – but he is still prone to occasional bouts of naivety on defence, and De Villiers is both a sound organiser and executor in that area.

How to structure the midfield to best suit the World Cup cause must be taking up a fair bit of Meyer’s mental energies.

Just another reason, though, to keenly await his maiden RWC team selection on September 16 is to probably learn which of his two talented young flyhalves, Handre Pollard or Pat Lambie, is going to start from “inside lane” at the tournament.

The Boks have stalwart Morne Steyn back in their midst as well, although it will be a major surprise if this once-favourite of Meyer’s leapfrogs both of the afore-mentioned pair to the No 10 jersey for game one of the major tournament.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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