Colour me shocked: Pieter de Villiers has gone and picked very close to the best South African squad available to him. There’s an argument for the inclusion of the crafty Adie Jacobs over the more athletic Juan de Jong, and maybe the untrammeled running ability and pace of Lwazi Mvovo over the experience of Odwa Ndungane, but they’re very close calls. Likewise Flip van der Merwe’s youth and aggression gave him a good shot, but de Villiers has opted instead for the lineout skills and leadership that Ulster’s Johann Muller brings to the cause.
Tri-Nations underperformers Ashley Johnson, Jean Deysel and Deon Stegmann are all axed from the backrow to make way for the return of Schalk, Heinrich Brussouw and somewhat surprisingly, Bath-bound Albert Louw. Juan Smith had to withdraw from selection last week due to his failure to sufficiently recover from injury, and while a player of his calibre would be a loss to any team in international rugby, it could mean that we see Schalk take on the South African No7 blindside jersey [they just had to be different] in a Brussouw/Burger/Spies backrow that looks very tasty. Then again, the wrecking-ball qualities of the Sharks’ Willem Alberts might well be employed on the blindside, or ironman Danie Russouw – who started all three of South Africa’s knockout wins in their successful RWC07 campaign at No8 – could be called into play, in what is an area of tremendous depth for the Boks.
Louw is an interesting selection, and joins fellow emigrés Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller [both Ulster] and Francois Steyn [Racing Metro] in the squad to make a four-square foreign legion. This is in stark contrast to the selection policies of the New Zealand management, who have institutionally ignored former All Blacks Nick Evans [outhalf, Harlequins], Carl Hayman [tighthead prop, Toulon] and Chris Masoe [backrow, Castres] – among many others – plying their trade in Europe. Masoe in particular has had an incredible season in France, racking up almost 2000 minutes of gametime and topping French rugby journal Midi Olympique’s “Les Classements des Etoiles” [a star rating system] as the best player in the entire league. While there are positives to both approaches, de Villiers should be commended for looking beyond his nose and trying to assemble the best possible squad for South Africa.
He may not have made the best selection as captain, however. There’s no doubting that John Smit is the best captain in the South African squad, but he’s clearly not the best hooker anymore. Bismarck du Plessis is the standout No2 in world rugby at the moment and has the potential to be one of the best to play the game in the professional era: incredibly powerful and abrasive [his Choke Slam From Hell handoff on opposite number Stephen Moore in the Australia game a fortnight ago distilled those qualities into one highlight], and he’s also reliable from touch, a big strong scrummager and a decent footballer in open play. Smit’s versatility makes him an excellent substitute – he can play in any position across the front row, although he clearly performs best at hooker – and while his personal game may not be at Bismarck’s level any more, he was still the standout player on the South African side in their first two Tri-Nations games, bagging a try in each and leading a weakened selection well.
De Villiers also has the luxury of two of the best looseheads in the international game: 2010’s Springbok of the Year, Guthro Steenkamp, and “The Beast”, Zimbabwe-born Tendai Mtawarira. The tighthead side isn’t quite as strong, but with Dr. Jannie du Plessis, world cup-winner CJ van der Linde – who’s also capable of playing loosehead – and Smit, they have the type of strength in depth with which almost every other nation will struggle to compete, maybe barring France, England and New Zealand.
The second row sees, as ever, the best partnership in the world – Victor Matfield and the
Fleshlumpeater … sorry, Bakkies Botha. Their virtues have been extolled elsewhere on this site, but suffice it to say that they are not just individually amongst the very best to have played their positions in the last decade, but also compliment each other’s games just about perfectly. Danie Russouw’s versatility sees him ahead of Flip van der Merwe for the replacement front-jumper, and Johann Muller’s technical nous in the lineout and leadership abilities make him an able replacement for injured lamper Andries Bekker.
The half-backs are another unit where the Boks have both tremendous depth and great versatility. While Fourie du Preez may not be at his 2009 peak, he brings a magnificent intellect and flawless decision-making to the position, as well as a crafty kicking game and a well-timed break. He is a vital player for South Africa, perhaps the most important in their squad, even with the good depth they have at scrum-half: when he plays, South Africa play well. Ruan Pienaar, who has started tests for the Boks at No9, No10 and No15 brings tremendous versatility to the squad, and Francois Hougaard, who has featured recently – and shone – off the bench as a wing brings tremendous pace, no little physicality and a nice on-pitch versatility to the team. With him off the bench as a winger, the Boks can afford to go wide-wide [to quote Eddie O’Sullivan circa 2007], as they essentially have two scrum-halves on the pitch to service ruck-ball on either wing … no waiting around for the scrum-half to sprint fifty metres across to make the next ruck, and quick ball is guaranteed by their hard-hitting rucking style.
At outhalf, de Villiers has opted for the belt and braces approach: Morné Steyn, Butch James and Patrick Lambie have all worn the No10 jersey in this year’s Tri-Nations, and Francois Steyn and Ruan Pienaar have worn it in the past. That’s five international outhalves in the squad. Lordy. Morné is limited, but the best goalkicker in the world; Lambie is tremendously talented and looks certain to be a long-term international in the mould of Percy Montgomery, but is perhaps a little too inexperienced for South African tastes, and Butchie has come back into the fold having spent the bulk of his recent years in Bath. The South Africans won the last world cup with him at outhalf, and while he’s nobody’s idea of a classic of the genus, he’s already been to the big show and won the prize. Ruan Pienaar’s outhalf days are likely behind him, but what versatility to be able to call on! Francois Steyn once was in Lambie’s position: all the talents, but going from what we have seen to date, a rugby-ego too rampant to get the best out of the players around him. Fullback is his best position, in my opinion.
The centres pick themselves: Jean de Villiers at No12 and try-hungry Jaque Fourie at No13. It’s a proud day for the whole Fourie family indeed. Big Jaque is to South Africa what Conrad Smith is to New Zealand: Fourie is direct where Smith is crafty and powerful where the Kiwi is guileful. Jean de Villiers has played both on the wing and in the centre for the Boks, and his international record speaks for itself: 69 caps, 66 starts. He is an integral part of the Bok backline, and has been for many years, aside from a year-long stint in Munster where they had the temerity to drop him. Eh, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the problem there. Both Fourie and de Villiers are big, strong men of very similar size [around 191cm and 105kg], but they play different roles: de Villiers is almost a kickless second-five eighth with a creative passing game, while Fourie is probably a more two-dimensional runner and finisher. Juan de Jongh backs them up, with showpony Wynand Olivier finally out of contention. Adie Jacobs has more smarts than the lot of them, and can consider himself unfortunate not to travel. Frans Steyn played the majority of the last world cup in the No12 jersey due to de Villiers’ absence, and Butch James is another who can slot into first centre.
Funnily enough, the wing is not a particularly strong position for the Boks. Habana has lost the spark that made him IRB International Player of the Year in 2007 and hasn’t scored a try in his last ten internationals, a dry spell dating back to June 2010. With that said, he’s bagged 38 of them in 70 caps, so he’s well able to live off the hump for a while. At the moment though, JP Pietersen is probably the more dangerous of the two. Both of them are experienced outside men who know their role in the side, as does Odwa Ndungane; I think that’s what got him in ahead of Mvovo, who looks extremely dangerous with ball in hand, but naive without it.
Fullback is another position where the Boks have cover up to their elbows. Francois Steyn, Gio Aplon, Morné Steyn [the less said about his efforts in Wellington, the better] and Patrick Lambie have started in this year’s Tri-Nations, and that man Ruan Pienaar has played there in the past, including during the last world cup. Morné Steyn is out of the equation immediately: he’s a No10, and that experiment at fullback was a disaster. Lambie came off injured early in his match, so there’s no real form to go on, and with his favoured position being outhalf and Frans Steyn [still just 24] in the squad, maybe that was just a one-off. Aplon offers incredible pace and incisive running lines, but not much of a kicking game and is physically slight; there may yet be a chance for him at winger if neither Habana nor Pieterson are firing on full rockets. There is plenty of size in the centres to make up for his small stature and he has looked like the Bok’s most dangerous broken-field runner. Pienaar would be an emergency option only at this stage of his career, but an option nonetheless. Francois Steyn has all the attributes to be one of the best in the world: size, physicality, pace, and a huge kicking game – punting, drop-goals and place-kicks – but too often is less than the sum of his parts. Still, if he can get it even three-quarters of the way together, he’s the best of the bunch.
The Boks: probably the deepest squad in the entire world cup.
Props: Tendai Mtawarira [Sharks], Guthro Steenkamp [Bulls], Jannie du Plessis [Sharks], CJ van der Linde [Lions]
Hookers: Bismarck du Plessis [Sharks], John Smit [captain, Sharks], Chiliboy Ralapelle [Bulls]
Second-rows: Bakkies Botha [Bulls], Victor Matfield [[Bulls], Danie Russouw [Bulls], Johann Muller [Ulster]
Backrow: Willem Alberts [Sharks], Schalk Burger [Stormers], Francois Louw [Bath], Pierre Spies [Bulls], Heinrich Brussouw [Cheetahs]
Scrum-halves: Fourie du Preez [Bulls], Francois Hougaard [Bulls], Ruan Pienaar [Ulster]
Outhalves: Morné Steyn [Bulls], Patrick Lambie [Sharks], Butch James [Lions]
Centres: Jean de Villiers [Stormers], Jaque Fourie [Stormers], Juan de Jongh [Stormers]
Wings: Brian Habana [Stormers], JP Pietersen [Sharks], Odwa Ndungane [Sharks]
Fullbacks: Francois Steyn [Racing Metro], Gio Aplon [Stormers]