2009-05-01 00:00

APART from the small matter of finding a fit, flourishing and in-form flyhalf, the Springboks look in good shape to take on the British Lions in the Test series in June and July.

The consistency of selection under first Jake White and now Peter de Villiers has provided the Springboks with a hard core of experienced players, while this year’s Super 14 has suggested that there is enough emerging talent to provide cover in most areas.

Injuries in the competition’s closing rounds and the play-offs could, of course, still disrupt the best-laid plans. The Springboks may have depth, but the loss of world-class players, a Matfield, Bakkies, Du Preez, Burger, Smith or a De Villiers, would still hurt them.

Heavily involved flank Juan Smith has been concussed again this season and another heavy blow to the head could threaten his career. South Africans are hoping midfield general Jean de Villiers recovers quickly from his groin injury, particularly as Adrian Jacobs could be facing shoulder surgery that would sideline him for the Lions tour.

But the selectors’ most glaring problem is at flyhalf. Bok coach De Villiers has already publicly stated that Ruan Pienaar is his flyhalf and he will be kicking the goals against the Lions.

This has placed enormous pressure on the talented Pienaar. He wants to be a scrumhalf, but it was hoped the carrot of a Bok cap, and a long and successful Super 14 campaign, would settle him at flyhalf. Unfortunately for the Sharks and De Villiers, Pienaar has ben sidelined for seven weeks with a knee injury and has now missed more matches than he has played. He is also not the Sharks’ first-choice goalkicker — Rory Kockott fills the role — yet his country will expect him to win tight Test matches with the boot.

Compounding the problem is the unfortunate injury to World Cup-winning flyhalf Butch James, who this week underwent knee surgery and will be out of rugby for eight months. If he was not to be De Villiers’s first-choice because of his overseas commitments, James would have provided ideal back-up in the Bok squad. Experienced, solid, and a reliable goal-kicker, the Bath flyhalf has also played regularly against the current pride of Lions.

Where does De Villiers go if Pienaar, with just a couple of weeks of Super 14 rugby to find his form and fitness, fails to establish himself?

Peter Grant was the heir apparent, but the Stormers, complaining about the lack of distance to his kicking, are now playing him at centre. Frans Steyn replaced Pienaar in the Sharks team, mixing the sublime with the ridiculous, and inside centre is his more natural position. The 21-year-old’s future with the Boks is also uncertain now that those who have his ear have apparently convinced him to work on his French rather than his English and abandon the balmy rugby atmosphere of Durbs-by-the-Sea for the lucrative if wintry climes of Europe.

If Pienaar fails to come up trumps, the most obvious replacement at flyhalf may well be Morne Steyn, who would have his Bulls halfback partner, Fourie du Preez, alongside him. Steyn knows how to keep his pack going forward and he can kick penalties and drops.

Barring injury or a drastic loss of form over the next few weeks, the Bok team should have few surprises. Stefan Terblanche, with his excellent kicking game out of hand, has been South Africa’s form fullback for the last two seasons, and should be selected, but he will turn 34 during the Lions tour and Conrad Jantjes seems certain to keep the job. The wings should be JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana with Jongi Nokwe and the Ndungane twins, Odwa and Akona, providing lively back-up.

With Jacobs now in serious doubt, Jaque Fourie and Jean de Villiers would be the obvious midfield pairing with the rejuvenated Bulls centre Wynand Olivier, playing the most effective rugby of his career, also challenging.

Du Preez, Ricky Januarie, though his form has been patchy, and Rory Kockott are the scrumhalf contenders.

The trio of Pierre Spies, Schalk Burger and Juan Smith appear a shoo-in at loose forward, but it is no secret that the British Lions aim to target the Boks at the breakdown and ideally De Villiers would want a scrambler, a Heinrich Brussow, to compete on the ground for quick ball.

Lions manager Gerald Davies has promised that the tourists will play “smart rugby” and this means stopping the Boks from playing the game at high pace and exploiting their mobility on the hard fields. And that will mean a fierce battle of the breakdown.

Still, it will take a brave selector to break up the settled backrow though number eight Ryan Kankowski, Brussow and Jean Deysel, if he finishes the Super 14 strongly, will be lurking. Puke Watson has made his customary strong start to the season but, like Daniel, he could be alone in the Lions’ den if he is selected.

Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha are obvious selections at lock with Danie Rossouw and Andries Bekker the back-up while a host of Sharks (Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis, John Smit, Jannie du Plessis and perhaps even Deon Carstens), along with Gurthro Steenkamp, will provide a revolving front-row.

It has been ominously quiet in Springbok rugby of late and it is usually about this time that someone, often the coach or an attention-grabbing politician, disturbs the calm. But, if sanity prevails, a fairly predictable Bok team could read:

Conrad Jantjes, Bryan Habana, Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villiers, JP Pietersen, Ruan Pienaar, Fourie du Preez, Pierre Spies, Juan Smith, Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, John Smit (c), Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira.

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