Butch relishing midfield challenge

Although Butch James was surprised to be named at centre for the Springboks, he’s excited at the prospect of testing himself against Welshman Jamie Roberts.

James was one of six overseas-based players named to tackle Wales in Cardiff on 5 June, but not in the familiar position of flyhalf. Ruan Pienaar will wear the No 10 jersey, and James is confident he’ll be able to combine effectively with his former Sharks team-mate.

‘I was a little surprised I was named at centre,’ says James. ‘But I’m not too worried because it’s not very different from flyhalf. I’m looking forward to giving it a go. In terms of playing there again, we’ll just have to see what happens in future.’

In recent times many flyhalves have moved to inside centre to give teams an extra decision-maker. Aaron Mauger, Luke McAlister, Berrick Barnes, Matt Giteau and Quade Cooper are just a few pivots who’ve played at 12.

James will be a good sounding board for Pienaar, while he also provides an extra tactical kicking option. However, James’s greatest attribute in the Millennium Stadium Test will be his physicality in countering an abrasive Welsh midfield. Roberts is set to play No 12 and he wreaked havoc with the Bok midfield during last year’s British & Irish Lions tour. The 107kg Welshman will be central to their plans.

‘The only time I’ve played against Jamie was when Wales toured South Africa in 2008,’ said James. ‘We all know he’s big and strong, so I’m expecting it to be tough.’

James is back in South Africa after Bath’s season ended last weekend and he had a suspicion he would be called up.

‘I knew I was in the Bok reckoning as Peter had chatted to a few of the overseas guys about a possible return. On Saturday I was at a wedding and my father started getting calls when it was announced. That confirmed it, but I always had a feeling I’d be called up for this Test.’

Out of his 35 Tests, James has played two at No 12, while he’s also played in the position for the Sharks.

‘I started at inside centre against England in 2002 when we got a hiding 53-3. That’s not a good memory for me,’ laughed James. ‘ I also came off the bench for the final few minutes against the All Blacks in Rustenburg in 2006.

‘I spent a year at school at inside centre, but I haven’t played there in a while. That said, I’m confident I can handle the challenge.’

James may have been one of six overseas-based players named in the side, but coach Peter de Villiers has said he still prefers selecting locally-based players. James was in talks with the Sharks about a return to South Africa, but the deal fell through late in proceedings.

‘It’s a pity, but things happen for a reason,’ says James.

The 31-year-old was also reportedly approached by the lowly Lions.

‘That’s just speculation at the moment. I spoke to Dick [Muir, Lions coach] and we talked about me possibly playing there, but that was a while ago. That’s probably where the story came from. They’ve been speculating about a lot of guys.

‘You never know what could happen, if it was the right time it could work, but I’m not sure about right now.’

Turning his attention to this weekend’s Super 14 final, James is intrigued by the flyhalf battle between Peter Grant and Morne Steyn. He believes the Bulls are favourites on the Highveld, but says the Stormers are capable of an upset if they stick to their game-plan.

‘It’s a tough one to call as each side is playing very good rugby. The Stormers are underdogs, but that doesn’t mean much.

‘Morne and Peter are very different players, and whichever teams’ forwards dominate will give their flyhalf a big advantage.

‘A lot’s been said about the kicking battle, and it’s important for the Stormers not to get sucked into that. They must stick to what they know and only kick when they really need to. They mustn’t kick ball away as they’ve gained a lot of confidence when they keep possession in hand.’

By Grant Ball