Rugby Championship

Will Serfontein really play at 13?

2014-09-03 13:28
Jan Serfontein (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - It is difficult to escape a suspicion that the Springboks, in a quest to solve one problem, may only have created another.

The decision to drop Stormers/Western Province youngster Damian de Allende to the bench after two inconclusive “try-outs” against Argentina in the current are of some weakness and instability - outside centre - brings no guarantees of alternative success.

That is because in the team announced by coach Heyneke Meyer on Wednesday for the Castle Rugby Championship Test against Australia in Perth (Saturday, 12:05 SA time), the real risk must exist that the incoming Jan Serfontein looks even more “fish out of water” in the berth than De Allende has done thus far.

Both are far better suited to No 12 - Serfontein, by all of reputation, physique, playing style and instinct perhaps even more? - so the Bulls representative possibly starts even less primed for the wider position than his immediate predecessor currently is.

And this against Australia, who are not only far higher ranked in the world than the Pumas, but pride themselves more on their backline guile and fluidity than they do a really imposing pack of forwards.

It is certainly a surprise move ... if, indeed, the intention really is for the former Baby Bok wunderkind (specifically listed at No 13 in the official Bok media release) to perform that function.

I cannot help wondering whether Serfontein and veteran captain Jean de Villiers - the latter is the most convincingly versatile high-quality midfielder in South Africa, let’s not forget - will, in fact, switch roles for the challenge of the fleet-footed Wallabies.

The Aussies will have that smart operator Matt Toomua at inside centre themselves and the explosive qualities in partnership of the 103kg, Fijian-born Tevita Kuridrani certainly testing Serfontein’s resilience, awareness and positional acumen in relatively virgin territory for the 21-year-old Bok player.

If it doesn’t occur straight away, then perhaps as the game progresses or in specific situations on the park we will witness the eminently sensible step of Serfontein slipping into the “nearer” channel to which he is so much more accustomed and the known, admirable tolerance and willingness of De Villiers to adjust being summoned once again.

Meyer did stress a few weeks back that he wanted his skipper more regularly stationed in the key decision-making No 12 slot, which is perfectly understandable, so there is consistency, at least, in the decision to have De Villiers - he will earn his 99th cap in Perth - supposedly pulling the strings in his favoured position.

But there have also been times in the coach’s tenure that controversial “exile” Frans Steyn has operated there, with the 33-year-old De Villiers doing a suitably smart job in the outside channel.

By asking Serfontein to play at outside centre, Meyer breaks a three-game June sequence for him in his best berth while De Villiers was injured for the so-called “window” period - they were also Serfontein’s first starts of any kind as he had only been employed as a substitute by South Africa before that.

Maybe Serfontein will flourish, although it is a tall order to expect him to acclimatise with the snap of the fingers, something only illustrated as the arguably unlucky De Allende - playing behind such a setpiece-blitzed, humiliated pack in Salta - found the going pretty tough at times.

It also brings back into sharp focus Meyer’s evident lack of conviction about the claims of someone like Juan de Jongh, who is at the very least a specialist at No 13, has been a game-breaker at Test level before, and is playing vibrant rugby for the Currie Cup log-topping WP team he now leads as he revels in a welcome, injury-free personal run.

De Jongh doesn’t wholly fulfil the coach’s known, physically-imposing requirements for his midfielders, but he has very seldom been exposed as defensively frail. To the contrary, this clever stepper has almost always been a tenacious and firm tackler.

At least outside centre options should soon swell again for the home leg of the Championship against both Australia and New Zealand, when Japan-based utility back JP Pietersen - and perhaps reportedly also Jaque Fourie, if properly fit again - should be in the selection frame.

For the time being, though, I fear the Boks look structurally out-of-kilter in midfield and may just pay a bit of a price for it ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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