The Cheetah the Lions should fear

Peter de Villiers needs to exploit the explosive talents of Jongi Nokwe when picking a balanced Springbok 22 this June.

The Bryan Habana debate has grown rather tired. The Bok No 11 won the 2007 IRB Player of the Year Award and nobody will dispute that, at that point, he was the most dangerous player on the planet. In 2008, his form dipped dramatically and he has yet to rediscover the mojo that made him so freakishly special.

Habana fans have good reason to hope for a turnaround. JP Pietersen, another World Cup hero, was so poor in the 2008 Super 14 that De Villiers omitted him from the Bok training squad. Pietersen went on a speciaised programme and returned for the Sharks later in the year to help the East Coasters win the Absa Currie Cup. He scored six tries in that tournament and has scored six tries to date in the 2009 Super 14.

If Pietersen could hit back, why can’t Habana? It’s an obvious question, but unfortunately the wrong question. Habana may indeed return to the sparkling heights of 2007, but his comeback to form may take longer than most of his fans or the Bok selectors expect. The 2009 Super 14 hasn’t shown why he should continue in a starting capacity for South Africa. In fact, there are better options that presently necessitate his exclusion from the matchday squad altogether.

Jongi Nokwe took his opportunity when Habana was injured last year, scoring four tries against Australia in a 53-8 romp at Ellis Park. He didn’t feature on the UK tour, but has carried that prolific finishing form through to this year’s Super 14.

Even when the Cheetahs have struggled, Nokwe has shone. Injury has limited his involvement, but he has still scored five tries, tries that have showcased his clinical finishing ability. He’s unmatched for speed, but has improved in other areas such as defence and kicking – those little chip and regathers a big feature of his game in 2009.

Nokwe should be included in the Bok match 22 as an impact player. Conrad Jantjes is likely to hold onto his spot at fullback (despite the consistent showings of the veteran Stefan Terblanche – but that’s a debate for another day) with Pietersen set to retain his right wing position. Assuming Jean de Villiers recovers from his current groin injury in time to start the first Test on 20 June, he should be paired with Adi Jacobs in midfield. Jaque Fourie is a class player who like Nokwe has also impressed in an unimpressive Super 14 side. And as seen in Edinburgh last year, Fourie can be just as effective at wing as he as at centre.

On the bench, a backline contingent of Ricky Januarie, Frans Steyn and Nokwe could be devastating, especially if the Boks smash the British & Irish Lions up front as they did the English at Twickenham last year. Following that formula for success, the Bok backs will have the platform to run riot in the second half, and as the Aussies witnessed at Ellis Park, Nokwe is but one Bok who isn’t short on killer instinct.

By Jon Cardinelli