It’s far too soon to judge in what capacity Jean de Villiers should go to the World Cup later this year, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
After the deserved acknowledgement of De Villiers’s remarkable recovery and comeback on Saturday, it didn’t take long for merciless members of the rugby public to begin questioning his form and fitness.
Yet after nearly eight months out of the game, what did anyone honestly expect? The 34-year-old was never going to shoot out of the blocks like Usain Bolt. Let’s get real.
For him, this is a process, 20 minutes here, 40 minutes there; it’s all about building up match fitness, and quite literally getting back up to speed with the game at the highest level.
Simply in terms of a confidence boost and being able to get through some contact rugby again, those 20 minutes against the World XV would have been invaluable.
Yes, when he broke free soon after coming on, it was clear he didn’t have the same sort of speed and acceleration that we've come to expect from the intercept maestro.
Yet, the fact is De Villiers still had the vision to run a superb supporting line to fellow stalwart Schalk Burger, and then send off a delightful long pass to Willie le Roux when he realised he didn’t have the gas to go all the way himself.
After the game, De Villiers was the first to admit that the World Cup remained a prospect that seemed a long way away, with the veteran acknowledging that he would have to fight for his ticket to England.
And therein lies the question. We should not be asking whether or not De Villiers deserves to go to the World Cup. Of course he does. But it’s justifiable to question whether he will be ready in time to warrant a starting berth ahead of a talented youngster such as Jesse Kriel.
Right from the outset of his recovery, De Villiers insisted that he would be willing to walk away if he felt he wasn’t up to the required standard. It’s something we’ve seen Bakkies Botha do, and it’s a brave and honourable decision that deserves to be lauded.
Yet the fact remains that De Villiers’s experience and leadership is crucial to the Boks’ cause. In whatever capacity, he needs to be on that plane to the UK in September.
Over the next few weeks, as De Villiers aims to continue to build up his match fitness, it will become very quickly apparent whether or not he can push through and perform at the World Cup. Perform being the key word.
It certainly didn’t seem like the Bok captain was paying lip service or doling out humble rhetoric when he admitted he was taking nothing for granted, despite his incredible comeback.
Key to this was his acknowledgement of the impressive performance of the new centre pairing of Damian de Allende and Kriel.
De Allende has been the standout South African centre all year, and he is simply irreplaceable at 12 on current form. But just as De Villiers can’t be judged on Saturday’s cameo, De Allende has to be able to replicate that form against top opposition such as the All Blacks.
Kriel’s debut at outside centre was also impressive, with the youngster adding a different dimension to proceedings with his speed and strong stepping. But time will also tell whether the 21-year-old can truly make the No 13 jersey his own before the World Cup.
De Villiers has to be at that global tournament, but whether that should be as a non-playing mentor or as the starting centre and captain is not yet clear.
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