Butch James’s selection at inside centre is a wise one and his experience will aid flyhalf Ruan Pienaar against Wales.
Although De Villiers has rested a number of first-choice players such as Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Morne Steyn, Schalk Burger, and Juan Smith – who has withdrawn due to personal reasons – the depth of South African rugby when overseas-based Boks are included has been emphasised.
James’s return for his first Test since the 53-8 drubbing of Australia in 2008 may come as a surprise, especially as he returns at inside centre, but it is the correct one. Pienaar may have more caps than James (36 compared to 35), but the latter is a World Cup-winning flyhalf who has matured over his career and he will be able to guide and communicate with Pienaar throughout the Test.
De Villiers is intent on persisting with Pienaar at 10, and apart from not playing with the rested Du Preez, Pienaar has been given the best opportunity to perform with James alongside. James’s role at the World Cup in 2007 was underestimated and his form since returning from injury in February transformed relegation-bound Bath, who eventually reached the Premiership semis with James dictating play.
James’s long-kicking game is under-rated, while the Boks also have numerous options in Pienaar, Gio Aplon and Frans Steyn to ensure they dominate territory. However, it is James’s physicality in attack and defence that will be the biggest boon for the Boks. Although James won’t be at first-receiver, he will slot into the flyhalf position at times and his ability to take the ball flat will ask serious questions of the Welsh defence. With the pack selected, the Boks can expect to at least gain parity at both set-pieces, and with James and Pienaar taking the ball to the gain-line, that momentum will continue.
There are question marks over Pienaar’s defence at flyhalf, but James’s abrasive tackling suits the Boks’ defensive pattern. Wales will rely heavily on Jamie Roberts to get over the advantage line, and James is the ideal candidate to match the monster inside centre. With Jean de Villiers alongside, the Boks have an impressive midfield offensively and defensively, which will force the Welsh to either play wide (which will suit the Boks), or play back to the Bok pack, also favouring the visitors.
Peter de Villiers has made selection errors in past, but he seems to have learnt from those if this outfit is anything to go by. In the past inexperienced players were picked with no older heads around, but similarly to Pienaar’s case, Aplon will also benefit from having Steyn and Jean de Villiers around. Aplon’s form has warranted a call-up, and he’s also been given a fair chance to succeed with the players selected around him.
Francois Louw, whose call-up is also refreshing, will benefit from a seasoned Bok pack, that also includes a deserved return for Joe van Niekerk. Notably, the Bok coach has also selected a strong-scrummaging front-row that includes tighthead BJ Botha, CJ van der Linde and John Smit at his preferred position of hooker, where he will play his second consecutive Test.
By Grant Ball