The Bulls inside centre could well be left on tenterhooks for a possible maiden start against Samoa at Loftus on Saturday (17:15 kickoff), given the smoke signals from the Springbok camp that severely overplayed captain Jean de Villiers may be given until later in the week to recover from a sternum injury he picked up the laboured victory over Scotland last weekend.
It seems crystal-clear that De Villiers is running on reserves of energy at this stage of the season, although he uncomplainingly turns out week after week for full matches for either franchise or country, and almost always makes a good fist of his duty.
Little wonder, then, that the veteran is struggling now with something that appears slightly more serious than a mere niggle.
Bok team doctor Craig Roberts on Monday rated De Villiers as “50-50” for the closing June Test, but even if the old warrior is patched up for battle once again, the risk of a more serious layoff will presumably only increase.
The right thing to do, I strongly suspect, is to give him an overdue break on Saturday -- even if it also understandable why national coach Heyneke Meyer wants to get the most out of his designated leader and one of the most stable, dependable members of the current Bok backline.
After all, this is the “final” of the four-team tournament and the ever-uncompromising, unbeaten Samoans come off a surprisingly easy disposal of Italy in the early fixture at Mbombela Stadium.
But at least some allowance needs to be made for longer-term needs, and a temporary cotton-wooling of De Villiers, to ensure he is at optimum physical and mental readiness for the Castle Rugby Championship a little further ahead, seems the correct medicine.
Unfortunately the 32-year-old has seen far more Super Rugby service, and also been saddled anew with the burden of franchise leadership because of Schalk Burger’s various health woes, than was probably intended at the start of 2013, especially as the Stormers haven’t exactly been blessed with enormous midfield depth and fellow-Bok Juan de Jongh has been injury-prone.
I believe Meyer could do worse than pull De Villiers out of the starting mix almost immediately, and if he is somehow deemed suitably fit enough for Saturday, could be listed among the substitutes for infusion as a wise, calming soul to the fray in the (still unlikely?) event that the faeces hits the fan at a fairly advanced stage of the Samoa clash.
Alternative leadership presents no significant problems at this point, so Saturday also shapes as a fittingly taxing, ideal opportunity for the Boks to look at the potential 80-minute Test credentials of Serfontein, the 2012 IRB Junior Player of the Year, in his favourite No 12 slot.
The Port Elizabeth-born player, at 1.87m and 97kg, has pretty much the correct tale of the tape for the unsubtle challenge of the Pacific Islanders, and proved his physical qualities by wriggling out of two or three attempted tackles by tiring Scotsmen last Saturday to dot the final try in the 80th minute and belatedly put the game right out of the tourists’ reach.
He got 10 minutes of activity as a substitute at Nelspruit, to go with eight accumulated against Italy a week earlier, and would also have no major problem gelling with Bulls colleague JJ Engelbrecht if the latter’s much improved second half – following a slightly shaky first -- against Scotland is deemed sufficient for his retention at outside centre.
Although there are some dissenters about the ongoing confidence Meyer has in De Villiers as both skipper and player, don’t count me among them: he’s been Mister Reliable throughout the year thus far, and one of few backs you can generally trust to rush out defensive alignment because of the expectation that he will actually nail his man or at least do enough to thwart enemy attacking flow.
And should Serfontein really excel on Saturday in a possible full-game capacity, there is always the option, for future purposes, of pushing the versatile De Villiers to No 13, where he occasionally admits to enjoying being just a tad more removed from the heavier infield traffic.
Ticket prices have been decreased for Saturday’s closing “double-header” in Pretoria, with rugby bosses clearly just a little concerned about the inability of the Boks to fill stadiums thus far in the international season – though at least the 30,000 gate in the Lowveld comfortably eclipsed the notably poor 23,600 at Kings Park a week earlier.
I’d suggest that early knowledge of wunderkind Serfontein getting a start at his home venue wouldn’t exactly harm Operation Bring ‘Em Back ...
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