MARK KEOHANE, writing in Business Day Sport Monthly, says Butch James won the World Cup in 2007 and now four years later, he should again be the preferred choice at No 10.
Some have mocked the Lions’ decision to invest in James, even if it is short term, but with James at flyhalf and Fourie du Preez at scrumhalf the Springboks have authority and direction in the one area they offered so little in 2010.
James, a Shark all his playing career in South Africa, will look odd in a Lions jersey, but it is how he looks in a green and gold jersey again that is more relevant this year.
James made his Bok debut in 2001 and he has yet to play 50 Tests in an era where three of his World Cup-winning team-mates have passed 100 Tests and the core of the 2007 winners have long gone past 50.
Don’t be blinded by this statistic and don’t be lulled by those who question James’ ability to last another year in professional rugby. Ever since his provincial debut those with a meeker disposition have wondered how he makes it through 80 minutes, let alone a season.
James has never put an emphasis on how many times he plays for his country. It is what he has done when playing for South Africa and his performance at the 2007 World Cup that has never been acknowledged in this country, especially his contribution in the final against England and his final 20 minutes against Fiji in a quarter-final that briefly suggested the Boks could lose.
Overseas they know the value of James wearing the No 10 jersey. In this country he has never enjoyed similar acclaim.
Coaches have played him at inside centre and then looked elsewhere when it failed. More traditional – and limited – flyhalves have been preferred. Wrongly, James’ field kicking game and goal kicking have been perceived as weak, but since 2007 he has managed the flow and control of matches as well as any No 10 in the game and his goal kicking has never been a weakness when playing for the Boks.
Critics have dismissed his value as easily as the greater South African rugby public has, but those who appreciate the psychology of Test rugby know that the Boks command greater respect from the opposition when James plays.
Morne Steyn has exceeded expectation since kicking the monumental penalty that beat the British & Irish Lions at Loftus in Pretoria and, at this juncture, he remains the selectors’ favourite to start the World Cup challenge in New Zealand.
Steyn’s goal kicking is his strength but it can be a selection weakness for the World Cup because it disguises the flaws in his game – deficiencies that were obvious in 2010 when there was no Du Preez on his inside to relieve pressure in decision-making and tactical approach.
Steyn, in 2010, kicked 42 successive penalties and conversions, but the Boks lost half the matches because their overall game required another dimension.
Pat Lambie, sensational in the Currie Cup tournament and wonderful in the final against Western Province, was used sparingly on the end-of-year tour and he may be a season away from making an international statement.
The reluctance to expose Lambie to the demands of starting at 10 in Ireland and the UK last November was a conservative decision because there isn’t time in 2011 for Lambie to serve a Test apprenticeship. Similarly, Lions flyhalf Elton Jantjies, whose only Bok appearance in the defeat against the Barbarians at Twickenham confirmed his national selection to be a year or three too early.
Jantjies isn’t good enough to be a World Cup consideration, and while Lambie will go to New Zealand in a utility role, the biggest fear must be how Steyn would shape in another enforced Du Preez absence. Steyn looked lost without Du Preez in 2010 and offered nothing outside the kick-and-chase game perfected in tandem with Du Preez in 2009.
Ulster-based Ruan Pienaar promised variation to the role post-2007 but there was no investment in what he could do at No 10 because he missed crucial kicks against the British & Irish Lions and was dropped. Frans Steyn, on his insistence, has been tried at No 10, but his best position is either No 12 or No 15.
South Africa, more than any country, has international flyhalf options, but it is James who must be nursed through 2011 as the go-to man if South Africa is to win successive World Cups.
His desire and motivation are obvious. He could have stayed at Bath, cashed in for another two seasons and retired on the international high of 2007. But he has opted to play his rugby in South Africa again and he has committed to putting his body through another season of torture in the hope of being a history maker.
James has been crippled by injuries like no other flyhalf in South Africa. His knees and shoulders have been through more surgeons than Elizabeth Taylor’s face and lesser individuals would have retreated to the sanctuary of a pension payout overseas. Not James.
He went to Bath three years ago to experience a different culture. Injury followed him, as it has done his entire career, but as he did in South Africa, he fought back. The strength of his mind is incredible and it is this mind that is stronger than the entire combined South African flyhalf contingent available for New Zealand.
Du Preez at No 9 is the best scrumhalf in the world. James, never spoken of as a Dan Carter or Jonny Wilkinson, is as valuable to his country as the former are to New Zealand and England respectively.
Speak to senior Boks in private and they want James wearing No 10. None will publicly choose one player over the other, but he gives those on his inside a comfort they just don’t feel when others play. He also gives the opposition a feeling of discomfort because there isn’t a flyhalf in the game with such physicality.
Defence wins teams the World Cup and there is no better defensive halfback combination than Du Preez and James, physically and in organisation of structure.
Steyn is without comparison as a Test goal-kicker and Lambie has a subtlety James will never have. But neither has the ability to threaten like James, whose laid-back approach is a contradiction of how he plays. The fearless and unselfish attitude is why he has spent so much time sidelined, but it is the only way he knows how to play, and he has often said it is not in his DNA to think of the consequence of his approach. Because of this he will always be a risk, but that does not make him a liability.
Since the confirmation of James’ move to Joburg from Bath many have asked why South Africa’s selectors would want to even think of playing him when there is a new band of 10s in this country. I refer those people to his display in the 2007 World Cup final, his ability to always trouble the New Zealand attack, especially Carter, and the strength of his mind.
Lions coach John Mitchell will play James at 10 and 12 and he will be used as much as a mentor to Jantjies as a starting 10, but from a Bok perspective all that should matter is that James is fit when the squad travels to New Zealand in September.
His detractors will make an argument for his omission because there has been little internationally to enthuse about in the past few seasons and he did nothing to warrant future selection when asked to play inside centre last year against Italy. It is a position that he can play, but it is not the position from which he dictates.
James is also not suited to playing an impact role. He has to start and he has to know whoever picks him believes in his ability. Jake White, three months before the 2007 World Cup, publicly endorsed James as his first-choice playmaker, and then allowed the player to settle. Eddie Jones, in 2007, worked on the mental aspects of his game and the necessity of a 10 to control the opening quarter and close out the match in the final quarter. James responded with the complete flyhalf display in the World Cup final, outplaying Wilkinson a week after doing the same to Argentinean flyhalf Juan Martin Hernandez.
White got it right in the way he handled James. Bok coach Peter de Villiers can learn from what worked in 2007 because this is one instance when a glance back reinforces the way forward.
Whenever James played for Bath their backline asked questions in attack and gave definitive answers in defence, but he never played enough because of injury and because of this Bath never threatened consistently.
His impact, however sporadic because of those injuries, was enormous and the club didn’t want to release him, having turned down the Lions’ advance for a year. But the player revealed to club bosses his ambition to play in a second World Cup and to do so he had to be playing in South Africa. Contractually they could have insisted he stays, but they also appreciated that no player can give unconditionally if his mind is elsewhere.
The fear, among his detractors, in picking him for the World Cup is understandable because of his career injuries, but it is how he has battled back every time that makes a greater statement than every time he went under the surgeon’s knife.
To win the World Cup, South Africa need a flyhalf who has done it; not one who has the potential to do so. James, even on crocked knees, stands alone in this regard.
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