De Villiers back at 13?

2015-04-23 00:00

CAPE TOWN — There must be an ­increasing likelihood that when (the ­pessimistic view would be “if”) Jean de Villiers resumes his illustrious Springbok career as both captain and player later this year, it will be back in his slightly less familiar No. 13 jersey.

Should that be deemed the slot best suited to him — he is fighting to be fit for the World Cup in the UK from ­September — it would be a repeat of the role he played in all of his first seven Tests as full-time skipper in 2012.

De Villiers’s plucky comeback from his sickening knee injury against Wales late last year comes under potentially ­intriguing media glare tonight (SuperSport 1, 7.30 pm) when a half-hour documentary from Shoestring Productions and Citadel titled Jean de Villiers: The Road to Recovery Part 1 is screened.

Although he has spent easily the lion’s share of his career at both first-class and Test level at inside centre, coach Heyneke Meyer, who began his own tenure in charge in 2012, confidently employed De Villiers at first in the outside role.

The now 34-year-old was partnered six times then with Frans Steyn as his No. 12 and once with Wynand Olivier (these days with Montpellier in France), in a trio of home Tests against England and then the first few assignments in the Rugby Championship.

De Villiers, who operated at thirteen with comfort and some aplomb, only switched back to the inside channel for the two closing Championship matches against Australia (Pretoria) and New Zealand (Johannesburg) when ­then-Lions utility back Jaco Taute had two matches alongside him.

He has mostly been re-settled at No. 12 ever since then, and last year Meyer gave a generous run in alliance with De Villiers to Bulls midfielder Jan Serfontein, officially stationed at outside centre even if they sometimes swapped roles according to situational requirements.

It has not been considered the most perfect of positional marriages by critics, as Serfontein struggled to make a ­genuine impression and was even below his best back at his favourite No. 12 for the Bulls in Super Rugby before his injury a few weeks ago.

What has become fairly clear is that De Villiers — assuming he does “rehab” from his latest cruciate ligament setback in enough time to be confidently restored to World Cup leadership — remains the most adaptable of all South African midfielders across the two berths.

This versatility may be something usefully in his favour — if his amassing of 106 Bok caps isn’t thought to be enough evidence of his enduring quality — as Super Rugby 2015 has thrown up a significantly better crop of SA-based No. 12s than 13s so far.

Some of the most exciting, and relatively youthful midfielders on display have been inside centres, if you consider such names as Damian de Allende of the Stormers, the Bulls’ Burger Odendaal and Harold Vorster of the Lions.

There has generally been less of a “wow” factor from our various outside centres, whilst the form of De Allende, in particular, has been such that he seems a virtual must-pick at No. 12 if a Bok side suddenly rumbled into action this weekend. The sturdily-built 23-year-old has beautifully combined strength with subtlety for his franchise, earning rave reviews across the Sanzar spectrum and featuring heavily in several of the Super Rugby attacking stats columns up to the midway stage of ordinary season.

De Allende is top of the pops for defenders beaten (38), rides fourth in the clean breaks department (12) and joint-10th for carries (83).

Throw in his defensive stoutness and a complete package takes promising shape, doesn’t it?

Ironically, in his only two Test starts thus far, in 2014, De Allende was also asked to operate in relatively virgin territory at No. 13, with De Villiers in the inside spot in the two narrowly clawed-out Championship Tests against Argentina in Pretoria and Salta respectively.

Conditions (on a rain-lashed Highveld) and circumstance (the Pumas’ famously brutal scrum dominance in their home tussle) conspired to give De Allende little scope to demonstrate his attacking abilities then, but this season’s evidence only seems to remind anyway that he is wasted anywhere but at No. 12.

So don’t write off the possibility of the Stormers’ emerging maestro nailing down the inside channel as his own ­during the Boks’ pre-RWC Test obligations this year, with franchise-mate De Villiers then slotting into No. 13 at the premier tournament if his recovery has been successfully completed.

The Bok skipper, at his advanced age, is no torpedo for outright pace in that capacity … but then neither is the All Blacks’ similarly cerebral, celebrated 33-year-old Conrad Smith in the position.

De Villiers will probably still possess, nevertheless, the required deception, awareness and power to be able to slip through gaps, as well as help set up last-pass opportunities to a flying wing, say, on his immediate outside. Injuries will also never be able to strip him of his renowned ability to shrewdly read opposition attacking intentions even as they are in their formative stages of execution.

De Allende and De Villiers the Springbok midfield combo at the World Cup?

I wouldn’t be prepared to bet too much money against it, myself, even as the Bok captain continues his ambitious quest to earn a passage.

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