Div’s dilemma: form or fame?

2011-09-24 00:00

RUGBY World Cup crunch time is just around the corner for the Springboks and coach Peter de Villiers now faces a dilemma of whether to select bravely and on form, or conservatively and on reputation.

The Springboks, following emphatic victories over Fiji and Namibia, now have selection options in a number of key areas and De Villiers can either go with the flow and opt for form or return seasoned regulars to the frontline.

The South Africans meet the bruising Samoans in Auckland on Friday and De Villiers, wanting to build on the Springboks’ momentum, is expected to name close to his first-choice outfit for the pool decider.

The talk in the Springbok camp has been that dynamic hooker Bismarck du Plessis, excluded from the match 22 against Namibia, will start against Samoa with captain John Smit, after three successive starts, playing off the bench.

But De Villiers was so impressed with Smit’s contribution against Namibia, in terms of his leadership and all-round skill, that there could be a change of plan with Bismarck du Plessis again used as a second-half impact player off the bench.

If De Villiers is to choose on form, then Francois Hougaard would start on the wing in place of record-holder Bryan Habana and Frans Steyn would be retained at inside centre ahead of the returning veteran Jean de Villliers.

Habana’s struggles in recent seasons have been obvious and it has taken him 11 Tests to cross for the try that finally broke Joost van der Westhuizen’s South African record. No one can doubt Habana’s determination and he appears, at times, to be trying too hard, but there is no doubt that the passing years have dulled his skills and knocked a metre off his pace.

Hougaard, in contrast, is where Habana was in 2007. Alert, energetic, elusive and a natural attacker, he is a handful for any defence and his opportunism — as we saw against Wales — wins games.

It might not be enough.

Captain Smit says that Habana will be more effective now that he has broken the try-scoring record and has that monkey off his back. Smit was delighted with Habana’s achievement and admitted he was out of puff after sprinting half the length of the field to congratulate the wing — “one of our Springbok family” — after he has scored the try.

“There was so much talk about it and he had such a long wait to get it. I think Bryan will be glad this is behind him now. It certainly was an issue, and getting it out of the way will help. I’m sure we’ll see a new Bryan and I’m sure he’ll score a lot more tries,” said Smit.

Frans Steyn, back at inside centre for the injured De Villiers — a replay of events at the 2007 RWC — has beefed up the midfield defence and added width to the attack. De Villiers has down the years performed at the highest level, but he also appears to have lost some of his attacking edge. Still, he is an experienced and astute rugby player and it will not be easy for the coach to overlook him.

The untimely injury to Butch James has, unfortunately, ended the flyhalf debate but coach De Villiers, it seems, had committed himself to Morné Steyn and he is looking to his golden boot to win the close matches which lie ahead.

There are a couple of other difficult choices. Danie Rossouw, the Boks’ third-choice lock, has been in rampaging form and he is challenging Bakkies Botha in the second row, while there is little to choose between Gurthrö Steenkamp and Beast Mtawarira at loosehead prop.

One player who is certain to be rushed back into the starting line-up from injury is lock Victor Matfield. The Boks fielded two “scrummaging” locks in Rossouw and Botha against the limited Fijian and Namibian jumpers, and they were never exposed, but Matfield’s expertise and lineout jumping will be crucial in the tougher games ahead.

De Villiers, if he keeps to his original blueprint, would choose the following line-up for the Samoan game:

Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen, Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villliers, Bryan Habana, Morné Steyn, Fourie du Preez, Pierre Spies, Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brüssow, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Jannie du Plessis, John Smit (captain) and Gurthrö Steenkamp.

This would leave him with a powerful bench of in-form players in Pat Lambie, Francois Hougaard, Juan de Jongh, Willem Alberts, Danie Rossouw, Beast Mtawarira and Bismarck du Plessis, and the Springboks will be at their most potent in the final quarter.

But, of course, the final selection will depend on the game the Springboks want to play.

If in the tighter games against Samoa and then in the play-offs, they are to rely heavily on the boot and playing for territory, then Frans Steyn could well move back to fullback where his prodigious boot would be an advantage. This would open the way for Jean de Villiers to return at inside centre.

But if the Boks are to keep the ball in hand and play with some width, Frans Steyn would be the logical choice at inside centre with fullback Lambie adding variety and his sharp distributing skills to the backline.

The Springboks’ World Cup campaign is certainly back on track following their stuttering start. The South Africans have gained momentum, their confidence is climbing and the return of injured players has added to their options.

The Wallabies are looming in the quarter-finals, but if the Boks select wisely, play to their strengths and make their tackles, they could well upset the Tri-Nations champions. And who would have thought that after they squeaked home against Wales and suffered a string on injuries?

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