Stormers need Jean closer in

    2014-02-06 13:02

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - The Stormers are making a mistake if they believe switching their leader and national captain Jean de Villiers to outside centre is the automatic solution to their sudden problem in midfield.

    It is an option to consider as compensation for the inconvenient sidelining for several weeks of worryingly injury-prone Juan de Jongh, yes ... but it should not be cast in stone.

    All signals from the camp suggest the marvellously flexible, uncomplaining Bok skipper will wear No 13 when they start their Super Rugby campaign - after a first-round bye - against the Lions in Johannesburg on February 22.

    The plan, it seems, given the major inconvenience of not being able to pair the established firm of De Villiers at No 12 and De Jongh just outside him, is for the sturdy young Damian de Allende to patrol the inside centre channel with the broader-skilled captain slotting into the wider berth.

    It is stating the obvious that De Villiers, one of the world’s best inside centres and still playing dynamic rugby at the age of almost 33, is better suited to and certainly prefers that position - he confirmed as much to me in an extensive chat a couple of weeks back.

    But he is also the consummate team man and eternally prepared to be versatile in a crisis.

    Frankly, though, why should De Villiers’s generosity in that regard always be regarded as the solution? And is it the correct course of action anyway?

    I take a slightly dissident stance on this issue: it is my firm belief that the Stormers, so often competitive in Super Rugby yet just as often bridesmaids by the end of it, and lacking absolute certainty of personnel for 2014 in the key slots of scrumhalf and flyhalf, cannot afford by extension to have De Villiers’s playmaking skills and seasoned rugby brain removed to the rather more “isolated” berth of No 13.

    Nine, 10 and 12 ... these are massive positions of influence in any backline.

    De Villiers’s indisputable class has to feature among that trio, by my book, because it is not cut and dried who will operate at either scrumhalf (Nic Groom v Louis Schreuder) or flyhalf (Demetri Catrakilis v Peter Grant).

    All of those players have undoubted merits, don’t get me wrong, but if the Newlands-based franchise are to finally go all the way in the competition, De Villiers’s rich experience and string-pulling abilities have to be closer to the real heat of battle. They are just too wasted, otherwise.

    Of those three critical positions mentioned, his name is the one that sits most rightfully and confidently amongst them, as custodian of the No 12 shirt.

    His influence must not be diluted, nor must he be required to shout louder as commander of the troops because he has been moved further away from the epicentre of things.

    We know from plenty of prior evidence - both at Super Rugby/Currie Cup level and in green and gold - that De Villiers can do a trustworthy job at outside centre, because he is good enough to make the switch.

    But the Stormers brains trust shouldn’t settle for mere trustworthiness from him: they need his game-breaking potential, and that overwhelmingly comes where he is more empowered to provide it, at twelve.

    Their best backline player should be staying in his best slot, and any “Plan Bs” - caused by De Jongh’s latest setback - built around that principle.

    Relative shortage of realistic candidates? Sorry, just make a plan. (Would Michael van der Spuy, the Grey College and Maties-educated product of Western Province’s much-vaunted youth systems, really let the side down if thrust into the Super Rugby cauldron for a while?)

    No 13 is a regrettably a position of increasingly less influence in the modern game, and someone ought to be able to do a solid enough stand-in job without the ideally-desired template being hamstrung further by De Villiers being dragged out of his primary, optimal role.

    A personal suggestion - and admittedly much may depend on how confidently the fit-again Jaco Taute comes through his first start in many months in the friendly against the Kings on Friday night - is that he reprise his midfield credentials temporarily, alongside De Villiers and in a resumption of an alliance that has also occurred previously at national level.

    Taute’s strongest suit is almost certainly fullback, admittedly, but he is a gifted footballer and could resume his No 15 career once De Jongh is fit again.  

    That would allow slippery, experienced Gio Aplon to assume the fullback duty - not the worst event, considering the pressure on the Stormers to buck up their try count? - with De Allende also giving the back three the dose of physicality it probably needs by assuming one of the wing berths for the time being.

    You could argue that all these thoughts require upheaval for various backline elements, anyway, so why not just take advantage of De Villiers’ kindness?

    But I am adamant that De Villiers must not catch an unnecessary cold at outside centre: he is too important to the cause for that.

    Maybe it is not respected quite enough ...

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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