Div’s midfield conundrum

Peter de Villiers needs to strike a balance between giving his World Cup centre-pairing game-time and developing an alternative combination.

The Springbok coach surprised a few pundits when he selected four centres in the group to tour Australasia. The lack of top-class wings suggested that Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie would provide cover in this area, and judging by the formation on the training field this week, De Villiers should pip Gio Aplon for the No 14 jersey.

The Stormers centre won the 2004 Tri-Nations wearing No 11. Will he win the 2010 tournament wearing No 14? It’s an interesting selection ahead of the Eden Park Test, and a selection that could have repercussions a year out from the 2011 World Cup.

De Villiers excelled at wing in his debut season for the Boks, but has become the side’s best No 12 option in the last five years. More than his individual contributions has been his ability to organise the backline on attack and defence, and while flyhalves like Ruan Pienaar and Morne Steyn have benefited from Fourie du Preez playing scrumhalf, they have surely benefited from the experience of De Villiers at inside centre.

De Villiers won the SA Player of the Year award in 2008, as well as the Players’ Player accolade. He carried that form through to the 2009 British & Irish Lions series as well as the Tri-Nations. As one of the senior players, he’s usually one of the first players selected when the coaching staff make such decisions ahead of a big Test.

The 29-year-old is a key player, but as history confirms, you have to be prepared for the loss of your key players.

An injury ruled out De Villiers in the build up to the 2003 World Cup, and a torn bicep cut him down in the first fixture of the 2007 tournament. In the latter competition, Jake White’s side was able to cope because they had a worthy alternative in Frans Steyn. In the build up to 2011, Peter de Villiers needs to ensure Wynand Olivier can provide the same sort of impact.

By virtue of his Super 14 performances, Olivier is a worthy recipient of the Bok No 12 jersey. He’s bulked up in the off season and added a physicality to his game that troubled the best players in that tournament.

But when it comes to Olivier, there has always been doubt over his ability at Test level. The Boks smashed France recently, but Olivier was exposed on defence. It wasn’t a physical failing, but rather his decision making that came into question, as too often a midfield mix-up led to the French exploiting an overlap.

Olivier didn’t start the next two games against Italy, but is in line to front the All Blacks at Eden Park. This could be Olivier’s dress rehearsal for the World Cup. The pressure’s certainly on the Bulls midfielder. Playing at the All Blacks’ fortress, in a country that will host next year’s global tournament. Time to shine.

He has the benefit of playing alongside Bulls team-mate Morne Steyn, but needs to use this opportunity to develop his partnership with Fourie. It should help that the Boks have two experienced wings, if you can call De Villiers a wing, to help on defence, but the likes of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith will surely see Olivier’s channel as a potential weak-point. He’s the man under pressure, and the All Blacks will want to exploit that.

Of course, Olivier’s possible success in Auckland could present another problem for the Bok coach. How can he change a winning combination when the Boks are on the verge of back-to-back wins in New Zealand? Leave Olivier at centre and De Villiers on the wing? If the Boks win this Saturday, it seems a safe strategy, but thereafter management may have to start juggling their options.

De Villiers needs an extended opportunity alongside Fourie at this level after being denied opportunities at 12 in the initial Tests. The two players will pair up in the Stormers’ 2011 Super 15 campaign, but as many a wise man has often said, Super Rugby ain’t Test rugby. Give De Villiers and Fourie a few more chances to grow against the best the All Blacks and Wallabies have to offer.

De Jongh may be utilised later in the tournament, and if they want to be fair to the 22-year-old, management should play him in his favourite position of 13. He formed a solid partnership alongside Fourie in the recent Super 14, but, according to his own coaches at the Stormers, he still has much to learn about the intricacies of 12 play.

It may pay to experiment with Olivier and De Jongh as a starting combination on the end-of-year tour, but for now, Peter de Villiers should be looking at the crucial 12 position and whether Olivier has what it takes to beat the best.

Olivier’s World Cup trial begins at Eden Park this Saturday. His success or failure in this year’s Tri-Nations will determine whether the Boks go into the 2011 World Cup with one quality 12 option or two.

By Jon Cardinelli