Boks in heap of midfield pain

Jean de Villiers (Gallo Images)
Jean de Villiers (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – Somehow the sight of captain Jean de Villiers being carted off on a medical buggy, clearly in considerable pain and with oxygen supply close at hand, seemed to sum up the Springboks’ sudden midfield cloud for next year’s World Cup.

It was learned on Sunday from Bok doctor Craig Roberts that “significant damage” was done in Saturday’s broadly depressing 12-6 defeat to Wales in Cardiff to a left knee the veteran centre has already had major surgery to.

Not only did he dislocate the kneecap in the gruesome but entirely accidental event at a breakdown just before the start of the last quarter, but major ligament damage has already been provisionally diagnosed through scans as well.

Even as the fullest orthopaedic verdict is awaited back in his home city early in the week, it seems pretty clear that “several months” will be De Villiers’s best forecast for recovery – and rugby folk know all too well that the more serious knee injuries can require up to a year of patience-testing rehab or, in worst cases, even force retirement on the victim.

As things stand, the 33-year-old has some nine and a half months at his disposal ahead of RWC 2015, which begins for the Boks against Japan at Brighton Community Stadium on September 19, although he would naturally need at least a reasonable amount of game-time ahead of it to recapture suitable form and confidence.

As much as you want to be optimistic for the plucky, globally respected character who has bounced back from great personal mishap several times before, it is difficult to be that for the time being.

As Bok wing of the 2003-2007 era Ashwin Willemse – still only 33 himself and his own career cut massively short through injury – lamented in the SuperSport studio after the Millennium Stadium reverse: “It will be a very tough road for Jean psychologically to get back (for the World Cup).”

That event is earmarked as the WP and Stormers favourite’s swansong in rugby, and a potentially fitting one as he has been jinxed for a few prior cracks at the Webb Ellis Cup.

His presence at the English and Welsh-staged jamboree looks touch-and-go at this point, at best.

Heyneke Meyer has invested strongly and faithfully in De Villiers since his acceptance of the national coaching reins in 2012 and, especially in the first two international seasons, his skipper has largely repaid that faith with sound performances and popular, almost unfailingly astute leadership.

It is probably true to say that this year has been De Villiers’ flattest of the three performance-wise; he has most often been defensively resilient and alert in midfield, but a little lacking in his more regular adventures of yesteryear over the advantage line.

But the captain has also been ridiculously overplayed at all levels of the game in recent times to bring on some inevitable mental and physical tiredness, and smarter management of his load next year, had  he been fit for its duration, might well have borne fruit for the World Cup.

The best-case scenario from here is that an enforced break for him in Super Rugby (at least?) next year does him plenty of involuntary good and he also recovers in appropriate time to be beautifully RWC-ready.  

Spare a thought for De Villiers’ beloved Stormers franchise, by the way, as they invariably have some sort of pre-season disaster afflicting a key Super Rugby player: it was exactly the case a year before this when Eben Etzebeth badly injured an ankle also in the final Bok fixture of season, against France in Paris, and was sidelined for many months.

Only a few days ago, Meyer was saying that De Villiers is his only certainty for the event; as things stand, then, there are no certainties at all for South Africa!

Ironically, it is at centre where the Boks have perhaps most gone blunt in recent Tests even before the De Villiers disaster – something that has had a damaging ripple effect on their general ability to construct crisp tries.

Many critics have rounded on Meyer for his regular fielding of – in the shape of De Villiers and Jan Serfontein – essentially two inside centres; the Bok backline play as a whole has increasingly gone too lateral, predictable and indecisive and the wings have been catching the proverbial colds on attack.

Compounding the De Villiers setback, in the couple of days ahead of the Wales clash another stalwart customer in Jaque Fourie – one of those cerebral men of the No 13 channel who brings vital “feel”, instinct and direction to situations, even if he is also no spring chicken – surprisingly revealed that he was no longer available to the Boks after 72 caps.

It had been assumed he would be in the RWC frame next year, and it should not be forgotten that in the corresponding fixture against Wales in Cardiff last season, when the Boks won, Fourie was responsible for a game-swaying bit of brilliance when he swivelled, inches from the left touchline, to provide a magical infield off-load to Fourie du Preez for the scrumhalf to streak away for a try.

The Boks possibly surrendering both Fourie and De Villiers now for the World Cup means that a massive 178 appearances between them – rich experience if ever that existed – could be stripped from midfield plans.

There are some decent enough replacement options, although there have been more vacancies than solutions created at centre over the last year or so if you throw in the walkout in a relative huff of single-minded utility back Frans Steyn and also the brutal demise of defensively questionable JJ Engelbrecht.

The 21-year-old, but at least now 20-Test Serfontein will be a strong candidate to take up his more natural No 12 position if De Villiers is sidelined for a long time or even permanently, whilst Damian De Allende is increasingly being groomed into Bok ways.

Players like JP Pietersen (outside) and Handre Pollard (inside) also possess the gift of backline versatility for Bok centre consideration, whilst currently outside the squad mix are Juan de Jongh (Stormers) and S’bura Sithole or Paul Jordaan (Sharks) who have their supporters even if Meyer may still be resistant over their smaller physical dimensions.

Nevertheless, considering the De Villiers-Fourie upheaval of late, it is impossible not to escape a feeling that, with RWC security next year in mind, peace pipes may just be offered both to Fourie and the more prickly Steyn in a quest to lure these known world-class customers back into green and gold for depth purposes.

And we all know how the best “talking” to modern professional rugby players is done ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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