Damian de Allende (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – To say that the situation in midfield remains “volatile” for the Springboks ahead of RWC 2015 might be considered an under-statement by some observers.
So much depends on the will-he-won’t-he status of national captain Jean de Villiers, whose jaw fracture in the home fixture against Argentina recently set even further back his determined rehabilitation from that awful knee injury.
Or did it? The Boks have moved into a strongly conditioning-based mode in camp now, and De Villiers is apparently able to play a pretty fulsome role in that, which should only aid his quest to regain as much stamina and explosiveness as possible and further strengthen the knee in question.
We know that if he starts the World Cup at all, it will be a little after the pool stage has got underway – possibly only game three for the Boks, against Scotland – and that is not necessarily a train smash.
It remains quite possible that his primary role at the World Cup may turn out to be for mentoring and “squad leadership” purposes; his popularity and the respect he commands from the troops is hardly in question and he is a fine figurehead on the ambassadorial and PR front.
He could also be an invaluable, calming second-half substitute on occasion, if coach Heyneke Meyer is reluctant to tamper with his fresh-faced current centre combo of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel and is comfortable with one of several sound candidates from the pack leading the troops out of the tunnel initially.
Those two are developing both individually and as a Test alliance at a tidy rate, but remember that this is the most high-stakes stage of them all, and as things stand these World Cup rookies boast only a combined total of 11 caps.
Little wonder that Meyer clearly believes – and reasonably so – that he needs a genuinely seasoned character at his beck and call for balancing purposes, especially as the Jaque Fourie potential Bok comeback fizzled a few weeks ago.
De Villiers is a proven, classy act, plain and simple, and some critics were probably overly harsh in suggesting he looked glaringly off the pace in the broadly problematic Durban game against Argentina – most of the serious defensive snags on the day came in much closer channels than the No 13’s.
The midfield cupboard is clouded in further confusion as Jan Serfontein, the 21-cap regular of Meyer’s 2013 and 2014 mix, has also played precious little top-level rugby of late after knee and hip problems – his presence in the RWC squad is arguably not a fait accompli.
Truth be told, Serfontein has not always properly replicated yet in Tests the abundant potential he showed as a Baby Bok; I believe he just looks a bit too “head down” in his approach to rugby in the green and gold jersey and has surrendered some X-factor as a result.
Exactly who Meyer opts for as his arsenal of centres at the tournament is additionally going to be influenced by which utility backline players he picks – keep in mind that both main flyhalves, Handre Pollard and Pat Lambie, can also serve No 12, whilst all of Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen and Zane Kirchner also offer possibilities in midfield, the latter two more in the outside berth.
Boks’ centre depth rating ahead of RWC 2015: 5.5/10 (There are some credible enough names available on paper, but it’s a question of gelling the correct partnership for unforgiving RWC needs, whilst the De Villiers situation remains dangerously fluid.)
*Centres in last RWC squad (2011): De Villiers, Jaque Fourie, Juan de Jongh, Frans Steyn (versatile). The first two were the primary pair, who started and ended the tournament in midfield alliance, but during the pool stage Steyn also had a stint at No 12 when De Villiers had a rib injury and De Jongh (presently a long-term injury casualty for WP) also got on the field at times against lesser nations.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
Boks’ RWC health: Fullbacks
Boks’ RWC health: Wings