For 11 weeks last year, the Cape media demanded the inclusion of Jean de Villiers at 12. And for 11 weeks, coach Gert Smal resisted. What a difference a year makes.
De Villiers’ unmatched ability in South African rugby to read and control a game was a highlight of the Boks’ 2005 season, and the new Stormers coaching staff are eager not to make the same mistakes of their predecessors.
So much so, in fact, that captain De Wet Barry has been asked to move to 13 to accomodate De Villiers in his favourite position of inside centre.
“I’m obviously very happy about that,” De Villiers told keo.co.za. “I’ve long stated that 12 is where I like to play and now I get an opportunity to play for the Stormers there.”
The decision to play De Villiers as 12 was not automatic, as witnessed in the Currie Cup last year where Barry played at 12 with De Villiers outside him. Coach Kobus van der Merwe protested that they were rotating, but the matches that unfolded proved otherwise.
“That was just a rumour that we were rotating. It didn’t happen. Really it’s an easy thing to ignore, but 12 and 13 are two completely different positions, and I’m now in the one I prefer.”
Barry’s chances of starting on Saturday have been speculated at 90%, although whether this is a ploy to distract Cats coach Frans Ludeke remains to be seen.
De Villiers acknowledges, however, that Barry’s fitness could be crucial.
“I’m hoping that De Wet’s fit, I’ve played with him a couple of times before and we know each other well. It’s just a confidence thing, and that familiarity will make things easier.”
The inclusion of either Barry or Greeff in the Stormers midfield will allow De Villiers to largely shed the duties of target-setting, or carrying the ball up from first-phase, a role he had to fulfil on the end-of-year-tour for the Springboks.
“When you get to Bok level, you have to fall into the side’s gameplan, not the other way around. Sure, it may be true that bashing the ball up doesn’t really suit my style of play, but that was what the coach wanted and I did my best to execute it. De Wet or Werner are both exceptional target-setters though, so either of them should take over that responsibility which I’m not too upset about.”
De Villiers’ role as kingpin in the Stormers backline is emphasised by the expected inclusion of Peter Grant at 10. Grant will make his Super 14 debut, and has not played with conviction since the middle stages of the Currie Cup last year.
“Ja, I will have to talk a lot to Peter, and that’s why it will be so much easier with a guy like De Wet outside to help. Peter has no more pressure on him than the rest of us though, or indeed the Cats guys. He has guys with experience all around him and that should help.”
De Villiers agrees that the feeling surrounding Stormers rugby on the eve of the competition differs markedly to last year.
“The expectation of last year put a lot of pressure on us, especially the coaching staff. There was a lot of pressure and we didn’t react too well to that. This year there are no expectations from either the media and public, but we know what we want to achieve. I don’t mind being in either position, but I think it’s always a little easier when you’re not expected to perform brilliantly.”