De Jongh has clearer path

Juan de Jongh can end his time in the Springbok wilderness if he consistently adds substance to style, writes RYAN VREDE.

In November 2014, there was, once again, strong support for Juan de Jongh’s inclusion in the Springbok touring side.

It has become an annual event, following directly after the Western Province midfielder enjoys a better than average Currie Cup, as he has for the bulk of his career.

The problem is there is nothing ‘better than average’ about the level of competition De Jongh faces in the world’s oldest domestic tournament. It has become a poor measure of a players’ preparedness for the step up to international rugby.

Statistically he was strong in two key performance areas: tries (six) and metres made (901). He placed fourth in both those categories, but for a player who is perceived to be a great slayer of defenders, he beat just eight in 870 minutes of rugby. That perception has consistently been exposed as flawed, particularly in the more competitive Super Rugby environment.

De Jongh’s quick feet, acceleration and top-end speed make him an asset in the Currie Cup, where attackers are afforded more time and space to operate, and where defenders, like those from Griquas or the Pumas or any of the other butchers, bakers and candlestick makers who populate the tournament, are less physically imposing. Super Rugby is where De Jongh’s Springbok worthiness must be assessed and it is at this level where his shortcomings are exposed.

For a start, De Jongh has been shown to lack the size and strength to go with his acceleration and speed. Size and strength, of course, for a midfielder are not everything, as JJ Engelbrecht’s indifferent spell at outside centre has proved. But it is undoubtedly a key factor at Super Rugby and Test levels, where dominating the gainline on attack and defence is considered a one-percenter that contributes massively to collective success.

De Jongh’s defence has probably been compromised by his diminutive frame too. Though his commitment to this discipline is not in question, his efficiency surely is. In the 2014 Super Rugby campaign only the Lions’ Stefan Watermeyer and the Sharks’ Frans Steyn among  the South African midfielders missed more tackles.   

Former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers largely overlooked De Jongh’s size limitations, certainly in the early part of his tenure, later deploying him as an impact player, where he had a greater effect than as a starter, given the suitable match situation – more open contests, tiring defenders, etc.

This is where De Jongh could be well suited in a Springbok context. Coach Heyneke Meyer has a strong case for De Jongh’s ongoing omission based on the options he has available to him. But Meyer would be hard-pressed to mount a counter-argument to De Jongh’s merits as an impact player. This is not to suggest the coach is a staunch ‘sizeist’. Indeed, he has regularly backed relative dwarf Willie le Roux as a starter, based largely on the fullback’s dynamism and skills supplementing what he lacks in size. However,

De Jongh doesn’t compare to Le Roux in this regard, with the latter exhibiting his competency consistently in Super Rugby, which is something the Stormers’ man has struggled to do over the course of his 69-match career. 

At 26, De Jongh is starting to approach a critical junction in his career. He will soon have to make a call about his playing future – does he extend his contract with Western Province (which expires at the end of the Currie Cup) and continue to battle on in the hope of securing a regular Springbok gig, or does he seek a fresh challenge abroad for which he’ll be paid handsomely?

The 2015 Super Rugby campaign could be a defining one for him. With Stormers skipper Jean de Villers sidelined with a serious knee injury, De Jongh is likely to start regularly and will have a chance to impress Meyer and alter the coach’s view on him in a World Cup year. Add to that the Test retirement of Jaque Fourie, who would have been a certain inclusion in the Bok squad, and De Jongh’s prospects of a second trip to the global showpiece do not seem as bleak.

He is in control of his professional destiny. We eagerly await his response.

– This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Ryan Vrede