Butch still best RWC bet

JON CARDINELLI says that Peter de Villiers and the South African public need a healthy dose of perspective following Saturday’s victory against a second-rate All Blacks side.

On Saturday night, I lost count of the number of times I heard someone say, ‘Morné Steyn has proved why he should start at the World Cup.’

I overheard some fans talking about Steyn’s performance as they filed out of the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. I cringed when I heard several of my colleagues champion Steyn in the press box, and cringed again when the assertion gathered momentum during the informal conversations leading up to the official press conference.

In De Villiers’s post-match prattle, the Bok coach unequivocally stated that Steyn’s the right man for the World Cup campaign in New Zealand. He spoke about Steyn’s value in the context of the Bok game plan, and highlighted his prowess in front of goal as potentially title-winning.

It was an alarming turn of events. Talk about a lack of perspective.

Steyn kicked five penalties and a drop goal, and enhanced his reputation as a cool goal-kicker under pressure. Nevertheless, his performance in general play was consistent with what he’s delivered since making his Test debut in 2009.

Doubts remain about his ability to play a commanding role on defence or attack. If he can’t make an impact against the All Blacks’ second-string team in South Africa, he’s not going to make an impact against the All Blacks’ best side in New Zealand.

It’s been difficult to follow the thinking process behind this selection. De Villiers described Butch James as a brilliant flyhalf but said the selection of Steyn was a matter of game time. De Villiers wanted Steyn to enjoy an opportunity behind a powerful back and alongside the best Bok backline players before the team departed for New Zealand.

It was a selection that robbed James of another chance to sharpen his own game and build some synergy with his fellow backs. It was also a senseless move given the All Blacks were always going to field their second side, and so any success that Steyn enjoyed would mean very little in the World Cup context.

But the Test has come and gone and for some reason Steyn is being touted as the messiah. De Villiers and company have ignored the fact that the Boks not only failed to score a try in Port Elizabeth, but rarely showed the intent or control to do so. It also doesn’t seem to concern De Villiers that their overly defensive game plan is particularly susceptible when they have a weak defender at No 10.

De Villiers has forgotten about the dark days of 2010 where the Boks used a similar game plan with no success. Steyn struggled as a distributor and a defender, and his impressive goal-kicking failed to save the Boks from humiliation. At one stage he had goaled 42 kicks in succession, but those fantastic stats couldn’t compensate for the Boks’ astronomical missed-tackle count or poverty of tries.

De Villiers will argue that the World Cup is a different tournament to the Tri-Nations. He will point to the past winners and say that it was an inspired goal- or drop-kick that got them home.

He wouldn’t be wrong, but he wouldn’t be completely right. You have to win the battle for territory and pressure the opposition into making mistakes before winning the opportunity to shoot for goal. Admittedly, the Boks did well in this regard in Port Elizabeth, but their success should be viewed in perspective given it was achieved against an All Blacks side short on synergy and first-choice players.

The Boks won’t enjoy such dominance at the tackle when they meet the All Blacks or Wallabies at the World Cup. The Australasians have proved that they have the ability to match the Boks’ physicality in the last two seasons. The Boks have unfortunately shown that when they are matched, or in some instances dominated, they have no Plan B.

Backing James as the starting 10 will provide the Boks with more options. He showed terrific attacking intent in that Test against the Wallabies in Durban, while that in-your-face defence certainly unsettled the visitors.

He has the ability to switch to a more conservative game when it’s required, and before the 2011 Test season he boasted a goal-kicking success ratio of 83%. So much for the perception that he can’t kick for goal.

His critics will point to his miscuing of a simple penalty attempt in Durban as reason for Steyn’s reinstatement as the No 1 pivot. In fairness to James, the ball was blown off the kicking tee, and he eventually asked Heinrich Brussow to hold it in place. This effected his concentration and he proceeded to push the attempt wide.

You would have expected more from an international player, especially one with an 83% record. But it would be crazy to denounce his goal-kicking ability because of that one kick, and even crazier to cast him aside just four weeks before the World Cup.

The continued selection of Steyn will take the Boks so far before they’re exposed and punished ala the 2010 Tri-Nations. Beating the All Blacks in a semi-final in Auckland is a tough assignment, and De Villiers will need to give the team the best possible chance of winning.

In James they have a player capable of maximising their existing defensive strengths, and a player capable of tapping into their dormant attacking potential. In short, they have a player who will take the fight to the All Blacks’ backline.

The victory in Port Elizabeth was important, and the emotions flowed as freely and abundantly as the celebratory drinks. But there should be no emotion in the selection of a starter for 10 at this year’s World Cup.

Whether the Boks want to play a predominantly defensive game, employ the kick-chase tactic, or bring their backs into play more, they need look no further than James as their go-to man.

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