Jean de Villiers’s World Cup exit has left the Springboks light on leadership as well as experienced midfield options, writes JON CARDINELLI.
De Villiers has fractured his jaw and will play no further part in this year’s global tournament. The injury has robbed the Boks of a leader, as well as a wily campaigner who can man the No 13 channel on defence.
Some have described the departure of the 34-year-old centre as a blessing in disguise. They reason that De Villiers never fully recovered from the knee injury sustained in 2014. They say it was a gamble to take De Villiers to the 2015 World Cup.
They believe his exclusion will afford a more deserving player an opportunity to start, and a more savvy player a chance to lead. They reckon the Boks will avoid making the same mistakes of 2011 now that the young bucks are in the frame.
I disagree. The injury to De Villiers is no blessing in disguise. On the contrary, his departure has placed the Boks in an unenviable position with regard to their centre stocks.
The Bok plan worked this past Saturday. South African outmuscled and outmanoeuvred their Samoan counterparts to claim a convincing 46-6 victory.
The midfield combination of Damian de Allende and De Villiers showed promise, while Jesse Kriel certainly made an impact from the bench in the second stanza. Fitness permitting, that is the formula that should have been utilised over the course of the World Cup.
Of course, that statement is made in the context of the players selected in the initial 31-man squad. The biggest gamble wasn’t the selection of De Villiers. Heyneke Meyer took a chance with the selections of De Allende and Kriel, two attack-minded players who have yet to establish themselves as reliable defenders. The pair’s tackle stats in 2015 Rugby Championship confirm that they’re not the most rounded players on the international circuit.
If De Villiers had wilfully stood in the way of a Frans Steyn or Jaque Fourie, then one could make a case for history repeating itself. Four years ago, John Smit was backed as the Bok captain and the starting No 2 even though Bismarck du Plessis was at that stage the best hooker in the world. The same cannot be said of De Allende and Kriel in 2015. A case may, however, have been made for Steyn or Fourie to start ahead of De Villiers if they were all in the squad of 31.
Nevertheless, De Villiers may still have added value as a squad member. He’s played 109 Tests. He knows what it takes to man that No 13 channel, and what it takes to win the big Tests.
With his departure, the Boks are left with three relative rookies in midfield. De Allende is into his second season as a Test player. Kriel made his international debut two months ago. Jan Serfontein may have 21 caps to his name, but has started on just 11 occasions.
Serfontein has played much of his Super Rugby and Test career at inside centre. De Allende is a specialist 12. Handré Pollard has played at 12 for the Bulls and slotted in at 12 for the Boks in the latter stages of the match against Samoa.
The big question is who should play 13 now that De Villiers is no longer with the team. Kriel battled with his positioning on defence over the course of the Rugby Championship, and in the recent pool match against Japan.
Meyer has painted himself into a corner, though, as there are no other outside centre options in the current squad. Unless, of course, he revisits the experiment of JP Pietersen at No 13.
The Boks are set for a significant challenge this coming Saturday. Scotland will test the Boks at the breakdowns and on defence. They will target the Boks' inexperienced, and possibly experimental, midfield combination.
The Boks may miss De Villiers in that No 13 channel this week, and in the play-offs. Meyer may also come to regret not selecting someone like Steyn or Fourie in his initial 31-man squad.
If they come through their respective fitness tests this week, De Allende and Kriel will have a lot to prove.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images