Brutal truth: Boks need Butch

JON CARDINELLI, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says Butch James has the hunger, the experience and the intimidating aura to be a match-winning figure at the 2011 World Cup.

‘Objects may be closer than they appear’, disclaims the rear-view mirror, a foreboding that sets its reader on edge. It doesn’t matter when or even if the Mac truck hits, only that it’s there; a threatening presence capable of reducing brave men to quivering wrecks.

Butch James looms in the psyche like a Mac truck in the rear view. Opposition coaches pore over blueprints and videotape in an attempt to nullify him, while seasoned pros like Dan Carter take the field knowing that at some point, they will be run over.

This aura shouldn’t be underestimated, especially in a World Cup year. Global tournaments are won on defence and experience, and James’s value as a game-changing defender is as indisputable as his 2007 World Cup winner’s medal. And at 32, he’s still rattling opponents.

‘I’ve never thought of Carter as a fragile player,’ James says in explaining the psychology of big defending. ‘It’s more a case of making your presence felt. You want your opposite number to know you’re around. You want him to be constantly thinking about what you’ll do next.

‘In the past I went looking for the big tackles. Now I let them come to me. If you read the situation correctly and your timing is just right, you’ll make the big hit. It’s something I learnt. I’ve matured a great deal over the past few years.’

The Springbok selectors need to face up to some inconvenient truths after a diabolical 2010 Test season. Morné Steyn may have come off the bench to kick the series-winning penalty against the British & Irish Lions, and his kicking game may have helped the Boks secure the 2009 Tri-Nations. But 2010 proved that far more is required of a Test flyhalf.

Steyn’s accuracy can no longer compensate for his defensive frailties or his failure to impose himself on attack. These shortcomings were mercilessly exposed in the 2010 Tri-Nations, a tournament where South Africa finished last on the log and trailed their opponents in
the attacking and defensive stats.

Psychologically speaking, Steyn is no more a debilitating force than Peter de Villiers is a rocket scientist. A champion team requires a flyhalf with gravitas, somebody like James who commands respect and has the capacity to make things happen.  If things continue as they are, however, the Boks will field a reactionary. Steyn is more a punisher of errors than an active agent of victory. He wasn’t good enough in the 2010 Tri-Nations, and he isn’t good enough for the World Cup.

Consider South Africa’s World Cup opponents. Is Stephen Jones worried about Steyn’s gainline running ahead of Wales’ Pool D clash with the Springboks? Is Jonny Sexton losing sleep over Steyn’s attacking variation before a probable quarter-final meeting? And is Carter, one of the Boks’ likely semi-final adversaries, expecting Steyn to smother the All Blacks’ attacking fire with a well-timed defensive rush?

The answers are no, no and most definitely not. Steyn doesn’t inspire confidence in any of these departments, and is limited to a predictable type of game.

In his book, Captain in the Cauldron, John Smit describes James as the heartbeat of the team that won the 2007 World Cup. Smit reveals that every Springbok team member felt confident, and relieved, when James was named to start at flyhalf for a big Test. As Smit suggests, James’s on-field aura can be galvanising.

Injuries have limited him to 40 Tests in 10 seasons, but spineless selectors have also played their part. The conservative streak that runs through every national coach has cost him as much game time as his crocked knees and dodgy shoulder. Any regard for his virtues in general play is overruled by the paranoia that James will miss a kick at goal.

Jake White is not exempt from this group of conservatives, and it took a compelling argument by former Bok technical adviser Eddie Jones to change White’s mind on the eve of the 2007 World Cup. Because of André Pretorius’s reputation as a kicker, White so nearly ignored James’s other match-winning attributes. By the end of the tournament, the decision to back James proved inspired.

De Villiers came into the Bok job with grand ambitions of total rugby, but after failing to keep James in the country and a half-hearted attempt to convert the promising Ruan Pienaar to flyhalf, he too settled on the conservative option.

Steyn is the incumbent because De Villiers is convinced that goal kicks win matches, and while there is some truth in this belief, other aspects of the game also need to be taken into account. The 2010 season was a case in point, as despite Steyn’s 41 successive penalties and conversions, South Africa still lost five of their six Tri-Nations Tests.

De Villiers needs to be brave and pick a flyhalf who can offer him more than goal-kicking security. James is in the coach’s plans and will return home to join the Lions in May. While De Villiers may have decided on his starter for 10 in New Zealand, James is determined to change his mind.

‘It’s a talented group of players, the calibre of which we won’t see again for a while,’ he says in reference to the Boks’ decorated senior core. ‘I want to be a part of that again. It’s going to be hard to break into such a formidable side, but to start for the Boks at the World Cup would be a dream come true.’

His first task is to perform for the Lions at the back end of the Super Rugby tournament, and convince the selectors he has what most experts already recognise as the aura. It took White a while to buy into the idea, and De Villiers will also take convincing. Fortunately, James is used to making fools out of sceptics, and will relish the fight to regain a jersey that was once unequivocally his.

‘The Lions already have some impressive flyhalf options in Elton Jantjies, Burton Francis and André Pretorius,’ he says. ‘That’s fine. They’ve made no promises to me about starting and that suits me perfectly. I want it to be tough; I want to have to fight for a start. Winning a starting place is my ambition, especially in a World Cup year. After that, I want to show the national selectors what I can do.’

Four years on from the 2007 World Cup and James has added to his repertoire. The improvement has been patent in his showings for Bath in the European club competitions, and the time abroad has forced him to become a more rounded player.

‘Competing in northern hemisphere conditions can really alter your playing style,’ he says. ‘I’ve had to embrace tactical kicking a lot more, as that’s the skill set required for wet weather. There’s also more focus on the No 10 as the player the team depends on, so it’s made me grow up a lot.’

Jones argues that James has what it takes to revive a Bok backline that’s shown few signs of life in the past 12 months.

‘He hasn’t lost any of the skill that made him such a force at the 2007 World Cup,’ Jones says. ‘Bath are a different side when he starts for them. His physicality certainly adds something to their game.

‘As for his kicking, he’s always been good at identifying space and his rare ability to kick on the run means the opposition back three need to be wary. It keeps them thinking about their positioning and means that they can’t go into the game with a set plan. That’s not to say Morné Steyn is a bad flyhalf, but Butch certainly ticks a lot of boxes.’

Jones also stresses that under the current laws which favour attacking momentum, Test teams need flyhalves who can vary their play.

‘Butch can change his alignment at speed. Stevie Larkham was great at it, and Butch is right up there too. When you get quick ball, you want a flyhalf to run on to the pass,  but you also want him testing the defenders with different running lines. It’s an invaluable weapon under the new laws, as the tackle is far more combative. You want a guy who can breach the gain line and set up quick ball.’

Bath coach Steve Meehan agrees that James has more than lived up to his reputation. Over four seasons, Meehan has watched James develop a maturity that amplifies his threat.

‘Defensively, I think he’s misunderstood in the sense that those big hits are more calculated than they look, and it’s not just an individual thing but something that’s planned within the team context,’ says Meehan. ‘Those big hits inspire team-mates to follow suit, and it can also put them on the front foot. There’s nothing random about Butch’s defence.’

Like Smit, Meehan doesn’t hesitate in endorsing James as the heartbeat of the team. While he’s not a leader in the strictest sense, his abrasive style and shrewd option-taking sets the standard for team-mates to follow.

‘Butch is a World Cup winner, but he’s also a fighter. He’s come back from so many injury setbacks, and the dedication it’s taken to get through rehab and then get back into his groove hasn’t been lost on the other players.

‘They admire him for his skill, and when he has something to say, there are no arguments. He tells it pretty simply, but there’s a lot of thought behind those plain words.’

It’s a travesty that James so rarely receives plaudits in his home country. It’s an injustice that stems from the perception that he can’t kick. Those who argue for Steyn as South Africa’s only kicking option are ignorant of James’s accomplishments with the boot. In the last decade, coaches have trusted Braam van Straaten and Percy Montgomery ahead of James, and James has only kicked for goal in 16 of his 40 Tests. But aside from the coaches’ lack of faith, you can’t fault James’s strike rate of 83%, a record that’s marginally less accurate than Steyn’s.

And an argument for Steyn as the Boks’ sole tactical option holds no water when you consider James’s outstanding contributions in this department. Few would have forgotten the pin-point kicking display that laid the foundation for a 53-8 hammering of the Wallabies in 2008.

He’s also never been scared to use the kick as a weapon; those attacking grubbers, chips and cross kicks so often resulting in tries for team-mates. While Steyn is the master of one discipline, James is more like Carter in that he can switch between a conservative and an attacking style of play.

‘A flyhalf needs to vary his game,’ says James. ‘If he sits back in the pocket and boots the ball continuously, he’s going to make it easy for the defence, and if he takes it to the line every time, he also becomes predictable.

‘I’m happy with the standard of my tactical kicking, and realise that it’s an important part of Test rugby. But is it everything? I prefer to play my rugby with ball in hand. My kicking is good but you need more from a flyhalf, you need somebody who can bring the backline into the game.’

– This article first appeared in the April issue of SA Rugby magazine.

Click here to subscribe to print edition

Click here to subscribe to digital edition