RYAN VREDE argues that Butch James must start at flyhalf at Loftus.
In announcing his squad for the Tri-Nations, Springboks coach Peter de Villiers told the media that the World Cup winning flyhalf had had limited opportunities in the incoming tour Tests, and because of this he deserved an opportunity to prove he still had the aptitude for Test rugby.
That opportunity has amounted to 39 minutes out of a possible 320. This while Morne Steyn struggles to replicate the form that saw him monopolise the shirt in 2009. James’s time is now.
Steyn is an excellent goal kicker and is suited to the kick-chase approach that the Springboks employ as a primary means of attack. However, he has failed to consistently display the variation that is a feature of his play with the Bulls and was evident with the Springboks in 2009.
Against the All Blacks in Auckland Steyn took the ball to the advantage line just thrice in 33 handles, with a solitary linebreak. A week later in Wellington Steyn attacked the gain line four times with zero success in 35 handles, while against Australia in Brisbane he breached the defence once in 19 handles. While typically accurate in his goal-kicking (sinking six from six) Steyn’s struggles with ball in hand continued at Soccer City.
Tellingly, just once in the aforementioned matches has he offloaded in contact – a marked feature of the Blacks’ Dan Carter and Wallabies’ Quade Cooper’s play. Carter had made nine play-maker offloads in four matches prior to Saturday’s Test in Soweto, while Cooper made four in the one match he played prior to his suspension. One doesn’t need to elaborate on the value of a flyhalf who creates attacking opportunities in this way.
There are mitigating factors, the most notable being the Springboks coaches’ unrelenting fascination with a flawed, pragmatic game plan. Their impotency at the tackle point on attack and consistent inability to deplete the opposition’s defence through multiple phases is another. And there can be no doubt that his potency is diminished in the absence of Fourie du Preez, who takes immense pressure off his flyhalf through his all-round excellence.
With nothing to gain from the remaining Tests, there can be no justifiable reason to omit James from the run-on side. Steyn’s selection will amount to nothing more than a conservative move from a desperate coach.
James, who impressed with Bath in 2009 before an injury sidelined him, watched the entire match in Soweto from the wood. De Villiers argued that the result could have rested on a 50m penalty and that in that situation Steyn was his go-to man. That rationale is understandable given that Steyn is a superior goal-kicker with experience in sinking pressure kicks.
But the next two Tests must be used to measure James in order to accurately establish the depth at pivot. The stocks were trimmed with Ruan Pienaar’s departure for Ulster, and outside of Peter Grant and more recently 19-year-old Pat Lambie, none at franchise level have impressed.
James physicality in defence will be a boon against the hot-stepping Cooper, while his directness in attack – something De Villiers says was lacking in the second half in Soweto – will add a dimension to the Springboks’ play which has been sorely lacking.
There is no risk in the selection. James is an experienced player, versed in the ethos and playing philosophy and whose combination with inside centre Jean de Villiers is well established. He is also a competent goal-kicker (there will be an insurance policy in Frans Steyn should Butch’s kicking boots still be in Bath) and has the skill to adapt to various styles of play.
James is a must for Loftus.