JON CARDINELLI says Butch James has made a statement since returning to South Africa and one bad tackle hasn’t changed the fact that he remains the Springboks’ strongest flyhalf option.
James has featured in just five games for the Lions since leaving English club Bath, and his impact as a leader and innovator has been profound. He did well in tandem with Elton Jantjies at the crucial 10-12 axis, and when asked to assume the pivot responsibilities, he so nearly orchestrated a great upset over his former Sharks team-mates.
The Lions led the Sharks 30-9 after 60 minutes, but a late rally by the visitors saw the game ending in a dramatic draw. The Sharks scored a converted try through Pat Lambie before James was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle, and seven more points while they enjoyed a numerical advantage.
Another converted try levelled the scores, and so the Lions’ dream of ending a poor season on a winning note was crushed.
Much has been said in the aftermath about James costing the Lions the game. Some have even gone as far to say it’s a mark of things to come if the aggressive No 10 goes to the World Cup.
Those who are quick to judge James’s yellow card as the turning point conveniently forget that the Lions conceded tries either side of his sanction. They also choose to ignore James’s late drop-goal attempt that was charged down by Bismarck du Plessis.
Would James have been so harshly criticised had Du Plessis been a yard slower, and that kick had bisected the posts? Would there be such ridiculous statements about his tackling style costing the Boks’ in big games, or would those self-same pundits be praising him and touting him to win the World Cup in a similar fashion?
Kicking has long been perceived as James’s weakness, even though he’s averaged 83% as a goal-kicker for South Africa. On Saturday, he challenged that perception again by slotting six from six, some from extremely difficult field positions.
James’s attacking skills and bruising defence have been evident during his five-match stint with the Lions, but his kicking and overall game management have been equally impressive. He will be afforded starting opportunities in the coming Tri-Nations, and if he can build on his performances in the Super Rugby tournament, he will force Peter de Villiers to reconsider the decision to stick with Morne Steyn.
Both Steyn and James will go to the World Cup, with utility players like Ruan Pienaar and young Lambie providing further flyhalf options. The Boks will need a flyhalf who can play according to the situation, in other words, somebody who is equally capable of kicking for territory or bringing the backline into the game.
Steyn’s limitations were laid to bare in the Boks’ 2010 Tri-Nations campaign, and the Bulls have struggled on attack in 2011. Steyn kicked the cover off the ball in the Bulls’ most recent game against the Stormers as part of a specific game plan. These tactics won’t work against an All Blacks or Wallabies back three who have the tactical kicking ability as well as the counter-attacking means to hurt the Boks.
Selecting a first-choice flyhalf comes down to who offers the team more options in the big matches. The Boks will have a relatively easy ride through to the World Cup quarter-finals, and you’d back them to overcome Ireland in that fixture. Who then is the best No 10 to lead the charge when the Boks take on the All Blacks in the semis?
The argument that James was a poor kicker was flawed to begin with, and his recent performances for the Lions have put that myth to rest. Outside of his kicking, he will offer a sound defensive option and unleash a Bok backline that has been shackled for too long.
And for those who are worried about his tackling, just remember what an important role he played as a defender at the 2007 World Cup. James will be one of the Boks’ greatest assets at the tournament in New Zealand rather a perceived liability.