Butch: His time is now

2007-09-12 14:48

Chris Hewitt

For a man whose career has thus far been autographed by injury, it is ironic that the self-same scourge should provide Butch James with the opportunity to redefine his career.

Jean de Villiers's torn bicep and Jonny Wilkinson's tweaked ankle have meant that James is now the crucial piece in the looming Pool A encounter against England, both on attack and defence.

The tournament-ending injury suffered by De Villiers against Samoa provides the offensive question.

De Villiers, as regular No 12 and playmaker in the Bok backline, has always called the moves and directed the plays. Many of them are run off him and it is a role he has gradually adapted to.

In Francois Steyn, the Boks are fortunate to call upon an exciting prospect, but a decidedly inexperienced one. Slotting in to a relatively new position in such a crunch encounter is a big enough ask, and it will be foolhardy to burden him with additional responsibility.

Thus James will have to assume the leadership slack, elevating his status to that of critical piece in the Bok backline.

"Predictable and thuggish"

The general English perception of James is not complimentary.

Perhaps his presence in the 2002 "53-3" fiasco at Twickenham has contributed, but the label of "predictable and thuggish" has proven unshakable in many oh-so-righteous eyes.

Seen as little more than a battering ram, it will be James's finesse and mental dexterity that will be tested fully on Friday. The very elements of his game perceived as weak by the opposition will play a critical role in determining the opposition's future at World Cup 2007.

James's challenge this Friday extends beyond offensive decision making, however.

In the absence of Wilkinson, James is likely to confront Olly Barkley as the stand-in English flyhalf.

Barkley has talent, but has proven ineffective at international level. The sudden elevation to starting flyhalf in the defining match his country has contemplated in four years is more hit and hope than masterstroke.

James's mission will be to get to him early. He'll seek out an early error, hopefully forcing the inexperienced No 10 further back in the pocket with the likely result of a cut-off and isolated backline.

Such a setback should prove insurmountable to a back division already low on confidence. Starting No 12 Mike Catt has talent but at 35 can't be expected to produce miracles, and the likes of Josh Lewsey and Jason Robinson appear to be shadows of former menacing selves.

Stamp his authority

There is a sure way to ensure the trio's talents remain hidden: batter Barkley back to Bath.

The task will be similar should Barkley fail to recover from injury in time to start. Should he join Wilkinson on the crocked list, Catt is likely to shift to 10 with rugby league-convert and rugby union-flop, Andy Farrell, switching to inside centre. James will want to put in a few early hits to stamp his authority on the encounter.

The match on Friday is not one man's battle, but undoubtedly James's performance in all facets is the most likely to determine Bok success or failure.

Through the trials of four knee-ops and about a billion hours of rehab, there were times when there was nothing to cling to other than the dream of what will finally dawn in three days.

Of the 22 wearing green, no player's journey over the past four years has been as agonising.

No player has had to fight more for the opportunity to play in France.

No player has a bigger opportunity to determine just how long his side stays in France.

  • Chris is Chief Rugby Writer at Sports Illustrated and a former SAB Sports Rookie Journalist of the Year.

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