Cape Town - Springbok captain Jean de Villiers will remain at inside centre for this year’s Castle Lager Rugby Championship - and for the foreseeable future as well.
According to the supersport.com website, the Bok captain is held so high in regard by coach Heyneke Meyer and his coaching side that moving De Villiers around the backline will be a no-go area in terms of selection, even though he has represented the Boks at outside centre and wing in the past.
De Villiers enjoyed a stellar year in 2013 and was aptly named SA Rugby Player of the year for his efforts. However this season has seen injury plague him, as it has with so many others.
Yet with a Bok squad named that has no recognised 13, and one which ignored previous regulars JJ Engelbrecht and Juan de Jongh in terms of selection, the Boks look set to play Damian de Allende at outside centre for the Argentinean tests.
JP Pietersen was a success in the role in the Castle Lager Incoming Tours series, but his move to Japan has made him unavailable for the majority of the games as it clashes with the better part of the Japanese season.
Meyer has always rated De Allende, but the big Stormers utility back hasn’t been tested at 13 – outside of schools level – and making his first start there at test level may well be a gamble.
While the other midfielder in the squad – Jan Serfontein – deputised for De Villiers in his absence in June and did well, he is also not a recognised 13 and is likely to play off the bench.
If this year’s Vodacom Super Rugby tournament has shown anything, it is the value of a solid playmaker at 12, with some sides – including the champion Waratahs playing a flyhalf in Kurtley Beale at 12 to help their attacking play while even All Black mastermind Dan Carter returned to action for the Crusaders at 12.
And when looking at the Bok squad, it is certainly a case of - if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – with De Villiers’ leadership abilities also being maximised closer to the play.
Meyer has gone a step further, saying De Villiers’ stay at 12 is one of the main reasons the Boks have been scoring so many tries in the last year. For that reason alone, it isn’t wise to move him.
“We looked at him at 13, I still believe though that his best position is 12. Jan (Serfontein) has been superb at 12 in the Incoming Tours, and it is a pity he hasn’t played 13. Damian hasn’t played 13 either – although he did play there at schools level. With JP and Jaque Fourie out, we are really under pressure at 13. We have to find the right combination,” Meyer said.
“I have always thought that Damian can be a brilliant player, we simply need to find the right position for him. The one thing I like about Jean at 12 is his leadership. At one stage we played Frans Steyn at 12 and Jean at 13 and we didn’t score a lot of tries. “While there were other factors as well, I still believe when your captain is at 12 he organises most of the play. He was probably the best 12 in the world last year I believe and although he can crash the ball up, he also has unbelievable hands to get the ball away. I believe the days have gone bye when we believe we all are going to crash up the ball and outpower guys. Everyone has good backs and they’re all skilful.”
The last remark may not go down well with Meyer’s critics, but the proof is in the pudding, with the Boks scoring 23 tries in four games thus far this year, and 47 in 12 tests in 2013. Compare that to the all-conquering All Blacks, who scored 51 in 14 tests, with the Boks edging them in terms of tries per game.
The truth is that the Boks have undergone a revolution in the past 12 months, and taken massive steps forward. De Villiers has been playing some of his best rugby of his career in the Green and Gold and deserves the confidence placed in him.
The key now is to continue the upward trend in a Rugby Championship that will be tougher this year.
Meyer’s final statement on the matter may again surprise, but those who have worked with him over the years know his teams develop into successful sides by evolving, just like this Springbok side is doing at the moment.
“Believe it or not, I always prefer a 12 who can move the ball around and create tries on the outside. We really scored some brilliant tries last year. Although he can play 13, and will do a good job there, I still believe he is a 12. He is big, strong and has unbelievable hands. I always want to beat guys on the outside as well, instead of just using the crash ball.”
There was some talk about letting De Villiers and Eben Etzebeth back to play for Western Province this weekend in the Absa Currie Cup, but the Bok team will make a decision later on this. One of the biggest problems they face if they plan this is that they will then need to release more players as well, as the other provinces will complain.