Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former Springbok flyhalf BUTCH JAMES on who he would pick to start at No 10 for South Africa, Jean de Villiers’ miraculous recovery and Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash in Brisbane.
Sport24 asked: Peter de Villiers wrote of you, “I don’t know any other player who was prepared to suffer so much physical agony for his team.” How were you able to play through the pain barrier?
Butch James: When I saw the appreciation on my teammates’ faces for my efforts, it took away any physical pain I might have felt at the time. It was pleasing to enjoy a good game from a personal perspective and be rewarded with individual accolades, but I always put team success ahead of my own ambitions. Rugby is all about the team dynamic, and the moment you lose sight of that, you are going to start playing badly. I definitely agree that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Sport24 asked: You once tore your ACL. What impressed you about Jean de Villiers’ recovery?
Butch James: It’s quite amazing how quickly he has recovered. I had breakfast with him three months ago, and he was already jumping and running around. Jean is a hard worker and puts in a lot of effort behind the scenes. That paid off for him when he returned to the field for the final 20 minutes against the World XV. It was great to see him back, and I hope he gets a few more games under his belt and goes from strength to strength. What motivated me to return from injury was the feeling you experience with your teammates in the change room after a good win. You can’t buy that feeling anywhere in the world and that was what drove me on during dark patches.
Sport24 asked: Jean de Villiers described you as, “One of the most underrated flyhalves we have ever had in this country.” As a player, were you pigeon-holed for your no-arms tackle technique?
Butch James: There were effectively two different eras of my professional playing career. When I was really young, I didn’t understand my exact role in the team and, at times, I would run around like a headless chicken. Looking back, I was a bit reckless and went through a phase of no-arms tackling, which people still stop me in the street to recount. But as I matured and started to understand my role, I guided the ship like most flyhalves do nowadays. That responsibility helped my game and ultimately made me a better player. The two most important aspects of flyhalf play is understanding space – when to take the ball flat and when to take it deep – and distribution. A pivot’s passing has to be pin-point. A flyhalf has to be the second best passer in the team, behind the scrumhalf, as it depends on the flyhalf’s pass whether or not a particular move on attack will work.
Sport24 asked: If you were Springbok coach, who would you select as your first-choice NO 10?
Butch James: The battle at flyhalf between Handré Pollard and Pat Lambie is neck-a-neck, but I would start with Pollard at ten and shift Lambie to fullback. While Willie le Roux had a brilliant game against the World XV, I would feel much safer with Lambie at fullback in a World Cup semi-final or final. He is more solid and won’t make too many mistakes. Although Pollard didn’t kick well for poles last Saturday at Newlands, he boasts an 80 percent goal-kicking success rate. He is also more physical than Lambie, and with players bigger, faster and stronger in the game today, he fits the bill.
Sport24 asked: You spent five seasons with Bath. How did your all-round game develop?
Butch James: When I moved to Bath in 2007, we actually had quite an attack-minded team, so it was enjoyable from a playing perspective. There was a bit of rain and mud, but at that level the players are good enough to run the ball. My attacking game improved and we played a great brand of rugby. We really gave it a good crack and scored some excellent tries. My rugby developed when I was in England because I enjoyed it so much. It’s a misnomer to suggest English teams kick and don’t run. At times, the game up north is a bit slower owing to the conditions, but the modern pitches drain really well, which allows teams to express themselves and not only play amongst the forwards.
Sport24 asked: Do you agree with the notion that New Zealand rugby players run into space, whereas their South Africans counterparts attempt to run at or over their opponents?
Butch James: Yes, and in order to combat this problem, I believe we need to follow New Zealand’s lead in playing according to weight categories instead of age groups. In South Africa, we get one or two big kids from under-10 level right through to high school, who are literally head and shoulders above their opponents. It’s pretty easy for them to run at and over their opposition, but when their opponents catch up to them in terms of height and weight, they have nothing else to fall back on. In New Zealand, the value of playing against opponents from a young age, who are the same size, is in developing skills to beat them by side-stepping and running at space. It’s a model we must adopt.
Sport24 asked: You played against Australia 12 times over your career and only won on five occasions. What makes them such a tricky team to beat, and your prediction for Saturday?
Butch James: The thing about the Australians is that they are really clever rugby players. The Wallabies devise good plans when they come up against the Springboks, and their attack is always well-thought-out. Australia will definitely test South Africa’s defence a lot more than the World XV did. Even if Australia endures a weak scrum performance, they will make a plan to get the ball out quickly to channel one, for example. Their lineouts are always effective and their defence is well-organised. However, if the Boks enjoy dominance upfront, the Wallabies will be in for a long day. I believe our forwards will gain the upper-hand by bashing them a bit upfront, and once we’ve sucked in a few defenders, our backs will be presented with the opportunity to prosper. Pollard will be calling for the ball to release his outside backs who can do damage. The Springboks will win 28-22.
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