Jean de Villiers (Gallo Images)
Springbok captain Jean de Villiers has “limited time” to prove he is the best in his position at this year’s Rugby World Cup.
Bok coach Heyneke Meyer raised eyebrows in some quarters when he selected De Villiers ahead of in-form Damian de Allende for the Rugby World Cup Pool B opener against Japan in Brighton, with some questioning the break-up of the exciting combination between De Allende and Jesse Kriel.
De Villiers will be returning from a mountain of injuries this weekend, having previously overcome a horrific knee injury at the end of last year only to break his jaw in the Castle Lager Rugby Championship game against Argentina in Durban.
But through it all he has battled on, and was magnificent this week as the Springboks’ ambassador during all the pre-World Cup functions that the team had to attend.
More than that, De Villiers’ leadership skills have been more apparent this week as he took charge of the side at training at times to elevate the performance at the training sessions.
However, it is a fine line between selecting the captain you want and the player in form. A similar situation in 2011 saw John Smit captain the team in their campaign in New Zealand while Bismarck du Plessis was the form player and probably should have started.
This time around both Meyer and De Villiers have privately said they will make a change if they feel it is in the good of the team. And now Meyer has said publicly that he wants the best team going forward in the playoffs, even if that means he needs a new captain for the game.
Meyer said De Allende would be used during the pool stages of the tournament and given a chance to prove himself. But for now, it was more important from a team aspect for De Villiers to play himself back into form as quickly as possible.
“Jean knows he doesn’t have a lot of time to prove his form again,” Meyer said.
“But this week showed again how valuable he is off the field, how he leads the team. People only look at the one aspect of how they play but they don’t see the things that happen off the field. The strategies that they are involved in - to make the right calls at the right time. Those are the things you don’t see. Jean is really a general on the field, but Damian will get game time.
Meyer hinted that if De Villiers didn’t find form, he would consider playing his captain off the bench and starting with De Allende.
“At the end of the day the best players must play. We have enough captains that can step in if needed,” Meyer added.
“ At a stage I was worried but we have around 5 or 6 guys who have captained their own sides. We want Jean to start this week and you can see his self-confidence is back and he has trained hard. Damian has played well though, especially with Jesse (Kriel). In this tournament you need the team of 31, because later on we play on a Saturday and then again on the Tuesday and we need all 31 players there. Hopefully injuries stay away because then we will be a very difficult side to beat.”
The decision would always be a difficult one though, as once a starting XV was selected, versatility becomes more important on the bench.
“The fact that you have three centres at the World Cup always makes it difficult,” Meyer said.
“ JP (Pietersen) is covering 13 for us from the bench. He’s played there a lot and Handre Pollard can play 12 as well. Damian has played 14 and 13 but his best position is 12. He and Jean can partner each other as well and he did have a very good season and is particularly good in wet conditions.
“He is physical and gets over the advantage line. If you sit now and think what team you would pick for the final, I’d say I’m not certain and I will be led by form, conditions etc.
“We’ve begun again at zero and the players need to put up their hands to play again. They need to see that they need to use every game to play their best.”