Jon Cardinelli

Springbok veterans crucial to World Cup


Fourie du Preez, Gurthrö Steenkamp and several other experienced players must play an important role for the Springboks now and in the build-up to the next World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.

On Saturday, Heyneke Meyer announced his 30-man squad for the Castle Rugby Championship. The big talking point was the inclusion of Du Preez, although it has always been matter of when, rather than if, the pre-eminent scrumhalf would return to the Bok fold.

Meyer wanted Du Preez back in the team as early as June last year, but was unable to secure his release from Japanese club Suntory Sungoliath. Fourteen months on, Meyer has finally had his wish granted.

Du Preez, admittedly, will play a limited role in this year's Rugby Championship, featuring only in South Africa's three home games. Nevertheless, it is an important move with regards to the long-term goals of this team, as Du Preez has lost none of the skills that made him the Boks' standout player for so many years.

Former Suntory coach Eddie Jones said as much in the build-up to that 2012 series against England. It was the view of Jones that Du Preez had benefited from the move to Japan.

The speed of the game in Asia had forced Du Preez to improve some of his other skills, but Jones confirmed that the Bok scrumhalf had lost none of his tactical awareness and kicking accuracy. Jones put his head on the block by saying that Du Preez's best years as an international were yet to come.

Du Preez was one of the stars at the 2007 World Cup in France and Meyer believes that he could play a role at the 2015 showpiece in England.

Now 31, Du Preez would be 33 at that tournament. If he is still fit and has still has the speed and precision that made him the best scrumhalf on the planet prior to semi-retirement, then the Boks need look no further for a starting option.

South Africa are not short on quality scrumhalves. Ruan Pienaar has improved immensely since moving to Ulster in 2010, while there are a host of younger players such as Jano Vermaak and Piet van Zyl who have performed well in 2013. Francois Hougaard may be horribly out of touch, but can still offer an option at No 9.

However, none of these players has the vision or skill that warrants comparison to Du Preez in his pomp. And even more significantly, none of these players boasts the same experience, both in terms of games played and tournaments won.

In that respect, Du Preez played a pivotal role in winning of the 2007 World Cup, the 2009 British & Irish Lions series, and the 2009 Tri-Nations.

If he is still good enough now, and in 2015, then his age shouldn't count against him.

There have been examples in the past of a player staying on well past his prime, blocking the way of somebody younger and better. John Smit prevented Bismarck du Plessis from playing at the 2011 World Cup, and the Boks suffered as a result.

There are also many examples of experienced players showing their worth at these tournaments. The trick is to strike the right balance.

Jean de Villiers has been in the form of his life for both the Stormers and Boks. He's 32 now and as quick as when he was 21. The significant difference now is that he has 87 Test caps, and if he goes to the World Cup, he will have 100-plus.

If De Villiers maintains his current form, then he should be an automatic selection for the 2015 tournament. The same applies to players such as Gurthrö Steenkamp.

The veteran prop (32) has become a far better player since moving to Toulouse in 2011. Again, South Africa boast younger players in that position, but younger does not always translate as better.

While Meyer will feel that things are finally starting to fall into place in terms of his preparation for 2015, there is still everything to prove.

As early as 2009, Peter de Villiers promised Smit and several other senior players a place at the 2011 World Cup. No such promise has been made by Meyer to any individual in the current group.

What Meyer will look to do in the next 24 months is build a group of 35 to 40 outstanding players. He will also know that while experience is important, the great World Cup teams have enjoyed a good balance between youngsters and veterans.

Meyer made the remark earlier in the year that newcomers such as Willie le Roux, JJ Engelbrecht, and Jan Serfontein had served to galvanise the group as a collective. Meyer noted how players like De Villiers and Bryan Habana, among others, were feeding off the energy supplied by the youngsters.

For Le Roux, Engelbrecht, and Serfontein, there was also much to be gained by working alongside players who had 50-plus caps and had won major tournaments with the Boks.

The re-introduction of experienced players such as Du Preez and Steenkamp will ensure that a relatively young group keeps evolving. The Boks made progress at the back end of the 2012 Rugby Championship and in the following tour to Europe. They've looked even sharper in terms of execution in June. It's important that they continue to move forward in the  tournament against Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand.

Photo: Barry Aldworth/BackpagePix

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