Boks: Jean should stay at 12

Jean de Villiers (Gallo)
Jean de Villiers (Gallo)
Cape Town – Should I make two strategic adjustments to the Springbok midfield or limit my tampering to just one?

That is a question coach Heyneke Meyer may well be asking himself as doubt surrounds the readiness of this season’s regular outside centre JJ Engelbrecht for the Castle Rugby Championship decider against the All Blacks at Ellis Park on Saturday (17:00).

Engelbrecht has a quad muscle problem, though if he is eventually passed fit, the Boks will retain welcome continuity in the centre berths – they already have to shuffle their second-row cards for this crunch fixture with the suspension of Flip van der Merwe.

It is true that the gangly Bulls player has not really glowed for consistent personal impact in recent matches, although he has largely made his tackles – supposedly an area of some weakness in his game – and his long and strong-striding legs are tailor-made for hard Highveld pitches and the extra demand for South Africa to be especially enterprising on Saturday.

If he doesn’t make the cut, speculation naturally swirls around the starting claims of current midfield deputy and young Loftus-based colleague Jan Serfontein.

At a push, he is a gifted enough all-round footballer to be able to operate at No 13, but a likelier scenario if he is picked as replacement for Engelbrecht is the rookie being stationed at much more familiar inside centre and versatile, vastly-experienced c aptain Jean de Villiers making the switch to the outside where he has served with enough comfort before.

But that effectively means two tweaks to current, normal service at centre ... and a couple of factors, I would argue, serve as caution against moving the ever-willing De Villiers further out.

The first is the very fact that it takes the skipper further from the fulcrum of battle; backline captains in full, noisy stadiums spend a fair bit of time as it is scurrying closer to brief forwards, emphasise decisions or to importantly engage with the referee, for instance – the latter especially relevant in the increasing age of television replays.

South Africa need to be especially switched on tactically this weekend, given the requirement of winning with a bonus point and preventing significant leakage of points at the wrong end too: while it may not seem a very big deal to some, won’t there be some “disconnect” danger in premier decision-maker and motivator De Villiers being a more distant presence at times?

But also to consider is just how well the 32-year-old has been playing at his preferred position, both as a creator of play but also as an assured and committed defensive presence.

Not for nothing is De Villiers consistently installed at No 12 in hypothetical Rugby Championship “Teams of the Week” in media across the SANZAR landscape this season.

Is it worth disturbing that equilibrium?

Of course if a decision is made that De Villiers must stay where he so clearly serves the team best, then another quandary is which of Serfontein or the more specialist 13, Juan de Jongh, must fill Engelbrecht’s hole if necessary.

I do not believe the 25-year-old De Jongh, though no stranger to Bok duty with 14 caps, has been playing to fullest known standards over the last couple of seasons, when he has also been disrupted by various injuries.

But he has a fine franchise-level synergy with De Villiers, remains a fantastic stepper and evader of defenders when the mood grabs him – attributes that could serve the Bok cause splendidly on this specific occasion – and it gets my goat when people call him a “midget” and the like ... suggesting he is somehow frail in the tackle.

If anything, De Jongh has a classical approach to tackling, bringing down attackers firmly and decisively when he needs to, and lacks nothing in courage.

Nor are his vital stats unusually lightweight: he is 87kg and 1.75m. I know the demands of the midfield tend to be a bit more physical, but those figures do not leave him far off established backline Bok customers like Bryan Habana (88kg, 1.78m) or Willie le Roux (90kg, 1.88m).

Morne Steyn, who must police the key, demanding channel of No 10, is 90kg and 1.83m.

I guess Serfontein – a magnificent talent, no question -- has the inside lane if a change at centre is, indeed, required and there are few reasons to quibble if he does get the nod.

But his call-up would also not be without certain drawbacks to the greater cause ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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