JON CARDINELLI says that fielding a new midfield combination at Lansdowne Road will compromise a South African defensive unit that already has much to prove.
Three days remain before the Springboks’ tour opener, and the coaches are in a panic. Ireland have named a competitive side that boasts the experienced centre-pairing of Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll. Who is Peter de Villiers going to pick to counter Ireland’s devastating duo?
The good news is Jean de Villiers is on the mend, but Jaque Fourie, Wynand Olivier and Juan de Jongh have already been ruled out of the tour with injury. The Bok management has denied that Adi Jacobs is carrying an injury, but that hasn’t stopped the South African rugby rumour mill from churning out Bryan Habana, Zane Kirchner and even Pat Lambie as possible centre options this Saturday.
It will be a hammer blow should Jean de Villiers fail to recover from a groin injury. The Bok No 12 is largely credited for organising the backline on defence, and when he plays in tandem with Jaque Fourie, there isn’t a better attacking or defensive midfield force in the game. Fourie is not available for this big Test, and so to lose De Villiers will certainly lend Ireland another advantage.
If De Villiers plays, the coaching staff will opt for Adi Jacobs at 13 given the two played together at Test level for much of the 2008 season. The pair did realise some success against a poor England team that year, but it’s a big call to bring Jacobs straight into the starting side. He’s had precious little game time in recent months.
De Villiers’s failure to recover would mean moving Jacobs to 12, a shift that will have disastrous consequences. The Boks were badly beaten by the French forwards in Toulouse last November, and Jacobs battled to keep the attacking runners at bay when they ventured down the 12 channel. D’Arcy and the Irish loosies will target this channel should Jacobs start the match at inside centre.
Lambie had an outstanding Currie Cup season, and has played 12 with some success. But if he’s picked to start, it should be at flyhalf where his distribution and decision making can be fully utilised, and there’s less pressure on defence. He defended admirably in the Currie Cup final, but it would be a big ask to ask the diminutive 20-year-old to repel wave after wave of Irish attack on debut in a northern hemisphere Test.
Habana and Kirchner have been mentioned as outside centre options. Habana started his career in the position for the Lions, but has rarely played the position at the highest level. He had an unsuccessful stint at 13 in 2006, a match that was incidentally played against Ireland at Lansdowne Road, where his defensive mistakes cost South Africa dearly.
Kirchner has played most of his senior career at fullback, and so starting him at 13 would be a massive gamble. The top coaches will tell you that 13 is the most important position when it comes to defence, and that it takes years of experience to master the art at Test level.
It’s hard to suggest alternatives at this stage, and for the Boks’ sake they will hope that De Villiers passes fit. This will ensure they are at least competitive, although there still may be problems.
The Boks conceded the most tries in the Tri-Nations, and their forward failings were exacerbated by poor defence in the backs. What the try and linebreak stats don’t tell you is how inconsistent the Boks were during the home leg of that tournament. They were guilty of leaking tries during some diabolical periods, such as the first 10 minutes of the Pretoria match. In that same Test, a great defensive effort in the second half earned them an unlikely win.
They’ve battled for consistency, and that battle will continue with a new-look backline set to be named on Thursday. They’ve already lost one of their best defensive forwards in Schalk Burger, and one of their best defensive backs in Jaque Fourie. Losing Jean de Villiers would be another big blow, but even if he plays, a new midfield pairing will take time to adjust.