Butch’s Bok spot is booked

JON CARDINELLI writes that through his performances for the Lions Butch James has shown what he will bring to the Springboks.

Most thought James was crazy for signing a two-year contract with the Lions. I was chief amongst the cynics, and when I interviewed him in February I asked him why he would leave a strong club like Bath for Super Rugby’s perennial whipping boys.

James said all the right things. He saw potential in the Lions, who had new owners and an astute coach in John Mitchell. He was impressed with the franchise’s young flyhalves, and even suggested that it may be hard for him to win a starting spot.

His statements appeared to be nothing more than lip service, and the initial cynicism seemed justified. The Lions began the season poorly, losing 10 of their first 11 games. Mitchell lost his patience and was not adverse to publicly slamming players. Elton Jantjies, so promising in the 2010 Currie Cup, looked embarrassingly out of his depth.

But then something changed when James joined the side for their Australasian tour. They beat the Brumbies in Canberra, and then the Highlanders in Dunedin. A win against the Hurricanes this weekend will take them to three wins from four, the best performance by a Lions side on tour.

Suddenly James’s words are starting to make sense. The World Cup winning flyhalf has played with confidence since pulling on a Lions jersey, and his individual contributions have certainly made a difference. The Waratahs match won’t be remembered for the result but James’s try-creating probe won’t be forgotten. His deft handling touches made the difference in Dunedin, and his variation created space for men on his outside.

That confidence has been infectious. Earlier in the season, Jantjies wasn’t so much sitting in the pocket as hiding in it, and was prone to handling and defensive mistakes. With James on his outside, he’s become less of a target for the opposition. The pressure has eased and Jantjies has been taking the ball a lot flatter recently. The Lions have benefited from the forward momentum provided by that 10-12 combination.

When I spoke to James in February he was clear about his ambitions for 2011. ‘Winning a starting place at the Lions is my goal. I want to show the Springbok selectors what I can do. Next year will be more a case of helping the next generation through,’ he said.

Credit to Mitchell for finding a way to exploit James’s particular talents and ensure that Jantjies is nurtured in the process. James has been massive for the Lions from an individual and team point of view, and it’s served to show how valuable he could be for the Springboks at the World Cup.

James wouldn’t have returned to South Africa in 2011 if he wasn’t going to play for the Boks. His place in the Tri-Nations squad is booked, and with the Boks likely to rest their first-choice players during this tournament, James will get a further opportunity to prove his value.

Bath coach Steve Meehan told me that when they first signed James in 2007, they hoped his inclusion would have a positive impact on the way Bath played. The results have been there for all to see, as Meehan himself suggests, and now we’re seeing James doing a similar job for the Lions.

A win against the Hurricanes would be monumental for the Lions from a tour and tournament perspective. Not only would it mark a historic tour, but it would see them recording back-to-back victories. It would also boost their confidence as they prepare for their season finale against the Sharks at Ellis Park.

The Lions are yet to beat one of the title contenders in this year’s competition, and there will be plenty to play for when they host John Plumtree’s men. No doubt James, together with his protege Jantjies, will be at the centre of their effort, and victory here would further fuel the belief that even at the age of 32, James still has what it takes to make a difference at the highest level.

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