Still life in the old dog yet

2012-02-08 00:00

CAPE TOWN — There is, of course, always a strong case to be made for a new coach starting with a clean slate, but I am not at all averse to the suggestion that Heyneke Meyer may turn to veteran Fourie du Preez as a bridging option for the Springboks, both as captain and scrumhalf.

As much as a clean-out of long-serving stocks can (eventually, anyway) be an influential key to a successful future, a good part of me also subscribes to the belief that such a move doesn’t necessarily have to be a sweeping one; that you can “look backwards to go forward” to some extent.

If it is true that the shrewd Meyer is, indeed, hoping to coax the No. 9 general back into the domestic fold with a view to extending his 62-Test career with the Springboks, I fancy that there could be positive spin-offs.

For one thing, it doesn’t seem, reading between the lines, that the coach intends stretching Du Preez’s possible comeback to another World Cup in 2015.

But if he suspects he might manage to winkle, say, two further good years out of the globally respected half-back, his instincts may well be rewarded.

For I share the belief that Du Preez, who has played so much of his franchise rugby under the watchful eye of Meyer at Loftus, may still have an international shelf life. He is not even 30 yet — that event happens in late March.

And when you consider that two other iconic modern scrumhalves, George Gregan of Australia and New Zealand’s Justin Marshall, were still playing Test rugby considerably beyond that landmark, there is greater credibility for a case for Du Preez soldiering on.

Gregan was a ripe 34 when he earned the last of his incredible 139 Wallaby caps, while Marshall’s last All Blacks Test came only a month shy of his 32nd birthday in July 2005.

Yes, there are people who say Du Preez showed signs at the 2011 World Cup of slowdown, and that argument may well hold some water, yet it was always unlikely that the No. 9 would be able to match his giddy standards of victorious 2007, when he was at his physical peak.

The trouble for an ageing player is that critics tend to sharpen their poisonous pencils only when, for instance, he does not seem to be at home as a swift pass is required from a ruck. They immediately assume that he is off the pace, but 22-year-old scrumhalves are sometimes absent on these occasions too, for various reasons.

No, I mostly saw enough from Du Preez in the New Zealand-hosted spectacle to satisfy myself that he remains an influential and uniquely astute character in his key position.

Remember that the then-Bulls man had missed out on several weeks of Super Rugby earlier in the season after tearing a medial ligament in his right knee in a collision with a Bulls team-mate, and was a little short of a gallop when the senior Boks finally saw Test action in the second part of the Tri-Nations, immediately ahead of RWC 2011.

While Francois Hougaard obviously offers a potentially exciting alternative as a new No. 9 starter for the Springboks — he eclipses Du Preez now for pure nippiness and “X-factor” — his versatility is such that Meyer may still, for the time being, prefer his stationing among the substitutes, able to offer great second-half impact either at scrumhalf or wing.

Behind Hougaard, I believe it can be argued that South Africa’s Test-class depth at No. 9 isn’t quite what we might like it to be: the Sharks’ Charl McLeod went a little bit backwards last year, while a gut feel says someone like Dewaldt Duvenage, first choice for the SA conference-winning Stormers, may not be capable of making the leap from decent Super Rugby competitor to Test match force.

As far as the Bok captaincy is concerned, at least for the short to medium term, I am well disposed to the idea of Schalk Burger getting it, but wouldn’t be resentful at all if Meyer entrusted the soft-spoken but vastly respected Du Preez with the chore.

The one proviso I would have, for a possible Bok comeback by Du Preez, is that he return to our first-class landscape as an essential accompaniment: more and more big-name players are being lured to Japanese club rugby, where Du Preez plays for Suntory Goliath, but it is probably still a less than ideal environment for anyone wishing to play Test rugby for one of the superpowers; the gulf in standards is just too big.

Bottom line? Whether it is also as skipper or not, I still believe Petrus Fourie du Preez — if his conditioning is really good and mind genuinely eager — would be a reassuring presence at scrumhalf for South Africa, come the first of three Tests against England in Durban on June 9.

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