Boks must back Olivier

The decision to rest Wynand Olivier after a shaky performance against France could do the player, and the Springboks, more harm than good.

Olivier finished the Super 14 as South Africa’s standout inside centre, and was rightly picked to start against France. Unfortunately, another inconsistent showing in the green and gold would have satisfied his detractors, who believe that when it comes to Test rugby, Olivier just isn’t good enough.

The Bulls No 12′s poor effort was overshadowed by the fact that the Boks won comfortably, but coach Peter de Villiers admitted afterwards that South Africa let themselves down in certain areas. While defence at the collisions was typically brutal, the Boks were often caught out in the wider channels and were fortunate that the French didn’t exploit the overlap more often than they did.

France’s first try was an example, as the lack of communication in midfield led to the visitors punching through the backline, a break that culminated in a score for Aurelien Rougerie. This wasn’t the last time where Olivier failed to gel with his counterparts, but you have to wonder what the Bok management expected from a combination that hasn’t played together since November last year.

The Boks need to be praised for hammering the French. The tourists were tired, but the Boks’ first string were also playing their first match of the season. That they won by 25 points in their initial performance speaks volumes. Given time to settle, the backline could inflict more damage.

There’s no denying that Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie comprise the Boks’ premier centre-pairing, but as somebody who’s preached about planning for the future, De Villiers should be managing his squad better. We already know who will play No 10 and 12 at the World Cup next year, but there needs to be some careful management of the understudies in these crucial positions.

Olivier went to the 2007 World Cup, but when De Villiers was injured, then-coach Jake White picked Frans Steyn to fill the No 12 void. Three years on, Olivier admitted to SA Rugby magazine that he wasn’t ready for the World Cup challenge, but in 2010 he’s a different player. He has what it takes to challenge for the No 12 shirt and push Jean de Villiers to produce his best rugby, lest he relinquish his starting place.

After a fantastic Super 14, Olivier was ordinary against France. This should not be held against him. On the contrary, Peter de Villiers and company should be giving Olivier an extended run in order to bring him up to speed.

Starting Olivier at 12 against Italy in Witbank would have been beneficial from a development point of view, especially since Morne Steyn, his Bulls team-mate, will begin at 10. Just what the coach hopes to gain from playing Butch James, a proven flyhalf who has a world title to his name, at 12, remains unclear. Jean de Villiers should also be specialising at 12 if he’s going to start.

Fourie has earned a rest after starting every match for the Stormers in the Super 14, so why not back an untried midfield combination in Olivier and Juan de Jongh? This selection would send the message that the coaching staff are leaning towards the pair as the official back up to De Villiers and Fourie, and giving them an opportunity to play together as much as possible before 2011 makes sense.

To reiterate, Oliver was the best 12 in South Africa in the recent Super 14 with those powerful ball carries lending the Bulls terrific momentum. His distribution is also underappreciated, as his linebreaking ability. His defence was top drawer, especially in the final.

De Jongh is a natural outside centre, although he did a great job at 12 for the Stormers. His pace and elusiveness would be best utilised in the wider channel, and his robust attitude on defence will also keep attacking runners at bay. He’s not the complete article by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems he’s been earmarked to appear at the global tournament in New Zealand.

Playing these two in tandem would give the Bok management an insight into their aptitude as a combination, as well as their individual aptitude for Test rugby. Olivier made his Test debut in 2006, but only recently made his return to the Bok fold. As South Africa’s outstanding centre in the Super 14, he should be given more opportunities to prove himself against Italy, and in the Tri-Nations.

De Villiers, Fourie and Olivier must be picked for the Sanzar competition, and if someone needs to be left out, it’s the 22-year-old. De Jongh has made great strides since breaking through in the 2009 Currie Cup, but the Bok management, after giving him a chance against Italy, should release him to Western Province.

There should be an instruction handed down to the WP coaches to play De Jongh at 13, as it’s in the national interest. This could see De Jongh partnering up with another Super Rugby rookie in Tim Whitehead, but the big plus is he’ll be starting week after week.

Olivier’s already proven himself at Super Rugby and Currie Cup level, and deserves an extended chance with the Boks. He may capitalise on this opportunity or fail miserably, but ultimately it’s game time that will provide the definite answer regarding his aptitude for Test rugby.

By Jon Cardinelli