Pete’s pointless panic

They were good enough to beat Wales, and there’s no reason why a second-string side can’t do the job against Italy.

What is with the doom and gloom following last week’s win over Italy? The two-Test series was always targeted as an opportunity to field new combinations with the 2011 World Cup in mind, but judging by some of Peter de Villiers comments, you’d think the Boks had just lost at home to Australia rather than beaten Italy by 16 points.

The high error-rate is unacceptable, but this shouldn’t be a reason for panic. There’s no reason to retain a few first-choice players this Saturday, as it robs the fringe players of an opportunity to shine.

The way the Boks lined up in training on Monday, it seems Ricky Januarie and Morne Steyn will continue as the team’s halfbacks. Juan de Jongh will start at No 12 with his Stormers team-mate Jaque Fourie returning to claim the 13 jersey. The big loser in this situation is Butch James, while Jean de Villiers is forced to the wing, a position he’s widely known to abhor.

James is a player who can offer the Boks plenty in a mentor capacity, but he still needs an extended run if he’s going to offer anything as a player. He played out of position last week and failed to gel with De Villiers, another player that was played out of position at 13, and suddenly he’s set for the chop. James is not likely to be in the starting side come the Tri-Nations, so one has to question the management of the World Cup winner over the past two weeks.

In Witbank, James should have started alongside Ruan Pienaar at halfback with De Villiers partnering Juan de Jongh in midfield. There could also have been a strong case for Wynand Olivier’s selection at No 12 given his dominant form in the Super 14, but there wasn’t much logic behind the selection of James at inside centre.

The same backline should have been retained for East London, but it seems James will continue to lose out, as will Pienaar. The argument against their selection may stem from the need to find synergy ahead of the Tri-Nations, but come on, Italy’s backline attack and defence isn’t on par with a Super 14 side, let alone that of a Tri-Nations outfit.

The inevitable response to this is: why play a second-string combination when there’s nothing to be gained? There is something to be gained for Pienaar and James, especially for the latter who only recently made his comeback to the Bok set-up. Pienaar has enjoyed precious few opportunities at scrumhalf, and with Fourie du Preez out, he will provide cover for Januarie in the Tri-Nations.

De Villiers looked better when he moved to 12 in the last 15 minutes of the Witbank clash, while De Jongh is a natural fit at 13. He was moved to 12 in the 2009 Currie Cup to fill a void, and retained there to fill another void (in the absence of De Villiers) in the 2010 Super 14. Given that the Boks already have Olivier and possibly Frans Steyn (if he’s picked in the Tri-Nations) as 12 options, De Jongh should focus on providing cover for Fourie.

John Smit will return to the fold, and given the strength of the Italian scrum when compared to that of the All Blacks and Wallabies, this is one area where the Boks will want to build some synergy. Starting Smit with Gurthro Steenkamp and BJ Botha, with CJ van der Linde covering both props on the bench, makes sense.

Andries Bekker will get some valuable game time at Test level before the Tri-Nations, and hopefully he’s selected in tandem with Danie Rossouw. To think this could be the Boks’ back-up lock pairing at the 2011 World Cup is an encouraging thought.

Juan Smith will return to rugby in August and Schalk Burger’s ongoing injury concerns suggest Dewald Potgieter and Francois Louw should continue in the Bok starting line up, as they will be the understudies at the global tournament. It also pays to remember Heinrich Brussow will be back in 2011.

Ryan Kankowski also needs game time, but can’t provide the same go forward as Spies in a Test environment. While he wasn’t selected for the first four ‘trial’ Tests, the Boks seriously need to consider bringing in Duane Vermeulen. A banker at the back of the lineout and a robust runner around the park, Vermuelen is surely South Africa’s best alternative to Spies at No 8.

By Jon Cardinelli