Ten weeks of Vodacom Super 14 have confirmed Jean de Villiers as a playmaker with exceptional vision. Equally, they have underlined concerns surrounding the player’s defensive ability.
The Stormers capitulation to the Chiefs on the weekend followed a familiar pattern, with midfield defence again a major concern.
Relatively unheralded midfielder Niva Ta’auso cut the line with regularity, most notably in the 10th minute when a simple miss tackle from De Villiers saw a 50m gain for the Chiefs.
The Blues match the previous weekend saw the fleet footed Rua Tipoki dance his way over the advantage line with virtually every run, and De Villiers return fixture after injury against the Hurricanes will be remembered for Ma’a Nonu’s successful exploitation of De Villiers’ channel.
There is a pattern here. Nonu, Tipoki and Ta’auso all play for Kiwi teams, and Nonu and Ta’auso’s status as outside centres show that attacking De Villiers’ channel has been a conscious decision by their teams’ brains trust. And their success will have been noted by every Antipodeon coach worthy of the name, including All Black coach Graham Henry.
Whether it is premature to categorise the genius that is De Villiers on attack as jelly on defence is debatable, but it is unlikely whether the debate will be allowed to dissipate.
Following a cameo performance off the bench against the Bulls, Reds midfield Lloyd Johansson fits the mold perfectly. Big, strong and bustling, his inclusion in jersery 12 would be an inspired decision by coach Jeff Miller, and one that the Stormers coaching staff would do well to anticipate.
Johansson has started a solitary fixture this season following his dramatic Wallaby elevation last year, and has both the ability and hunger to wreck havoc.
De Villiers’ Test baptism on the wing throughout 2004 showcased a player with a fine understanding of defensive patterns. Allied with the experienced Breyton Paulse on the other wing, De Villiers provided the required guidance and communication from the outside so crucial to the execution of the ‘up-and-in’ or press defensive system.
The last three months have showcased just how different theory and practice can be. De Villiers has yet to disprove the opinion that he is defensively frail, and the ghosts of Tipoki, Nonu and Ta’auso will ensure that this will become a mental as much as it is a physical challenge.
With the romance of De Villiers’ attacking play in danger of being overshadowed by the reality of his defensive game, De Villiers’ response must be immediate.
Similar concerns shrouded Wynand Olivier following the Bulls’ last minute defeat to the Brumbies. He responded the following week by standing tallest in an epic defensive effort against the Hurricanes.
Now De Villiers must do similarly in the remaining weeks of the competition.
Geniuses are famed for their flaws. Hamlet was indecisive, MacBeth blinded by ambition, Othello consumed by jealousy. De Villiers taunted by tackling? With the likes of Johansson, Aaron Mauger and Wynand Olivier to come, the answer will not be hidden for long.
By Chris Hewitt