Cape Town – Should I make two strategic adjustments to the
Springbok midfield or limit my tampering to just one?
That is a question coach Heyneke Meyer may well be asking
himself as doubt surrounds the readiness of this season’s regular outside
centre JJ Engelbrecht for the Castle Rugby Championship decider against the All
Blacks at Ellis Park on Saturday (17:00).
Engelbrecht has a quad muscle problem, though if he is
eventually passed fit, the Boks will retain welcome continuity in the centre
berths – they already have to shuffle their second-row cards for this crunch
fixture with the suspension of Flip van der Merwe.
It is true that the gangly Bulls player has not really
glowed for consistent personal impact in recent matches, although he has
largely made his tackles – supposedly an area of some weakness in his game –
and his long and strong-striding legs are tailor-made for hard Highveld pitches
and the extra demand for South Africa to be especially enterprising on
If he doesn’t make the cut, speculation naturally swirls around
the starting claims of current midfield deputy and young Loftus-based colleague
At a push, he is a gifted enough all-round footballer to be
able to operate at No 13, but a likelier scenario if he is picked as
replacement for Engelbrecht is the rookie being stationed at much more familiar
inside centre and versatile, vastly-experienced c aptain Jean de Villiers
making the switch to the outside where he has served with enough comfort
But that effectively means two tweaks to current, normal
service at centre ... and a couple of factors, I would argue, serve as caution against
moving the ever-willing De Villiers further out.
The first is the very fact that it takes the skipper further
from the fulcrum of battle; backline captains in full, noisy stadiums spend a
fair bit of time as it is scurrying closer to brief forwards, emphasise
decisions or to importantly engage with the referee, for instance – the latter
especially relevant in the increasing age of television replays.
South Africa need to be especially switched on tactically
this weekend, given the requirement of winning with a bonus point and
preventing significant leakage of points at the wrong end too: while it may not
seem a very big deal to some, won’t there be some “disconnect” danger in
premier decision-maker and motivator De Villiers being a more distant presence
But also to consider is just how well the 32-year-old has
been playing at his preferred position, both as a creator of play but also as
an assured and committed defensive presence.
Not for nothing is De Villiers consistently installed at No
12 in hypothetical Rugby Championship “Teams of the Week” in media across the
SANZAR landscape this season.
Is it worth disturbing that equilibrium?
Of course if a decision is made that De Villiers must stay
where he so clearly serves the team best, then another quandary is which of
Serfontein or the more specialist 13, Juan de Jongh, must fill Engelbrecht’s
hole if necessary.
I do not believe the 25-year-old De Jongh, though no
stranger to Bok duty with 14 caps, has been playing to fullest known standards
over the last couple of seasons, when he has also been disrupted by various
But he has a fine franchise-level synergy with De Villiers,
remains a fantastic stepper and evader of defenders when the mood grabs him –
attributes that could serve the Bok cause splendidly on this specific occasion
– and it gets my goat when people call him a “midget” and the like ...
suggesting he is somehow frail in the tackle.
If anything, De Jongh has a classical approach to tackling,
bringing down attackers firmly and decisively when he needs to, and lacks
nothing in courage.
Nor are his vital stats unusually lightweight: he is 87kg
and 1.75m. I know the demands of the midfield tend to be a bit more physical,
but those figures do not leave him far off established backline Bok customers
like Bryan Habana (88kg, 1.78m) or Willie le Roux (90kg, 1.88m).
Morne Steyn, who must police the key, demanding channel of
No 10, is 90kg and 1.83m.
I guess Serfontein – a magnificent talent, no question --
has the inside lane if a change at centre is, indeed, required and there are
few reasons to quibble if he does get the nod.
But his call-up would also not be without certain drawbacks to
the greater cause ...
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