JON CARDINELLI writes that Juan de Jongh can force his way into the match 22 reckoning with strong displays against Fiji and Namibia.
Jean de Villiers cut a dejected figure as he left the field in Sunday’s Test against Wales. For De Villiers, there must have been a sense of deja vu given that his 2007 World Cup was cut short after an injury in the Springboks’ opening game against Samoa.
The good news for De Villiers and South Africa is that his rib cartilage injury won’t sideline him for the remainder of the 2011 tournament. It will, however, rob him of the chance to build momentum and synergy alongside his team-mates, and it will afford the Boks’ back-up No 12 an opportunity to stake a claim for a spot in the first-choice side.
On Sunday night, Butch James came off the bench to replace De Villiers, and lent the Boks some bite from a defensive point of view. Despite James’s contribution, it seems coach Peter de Villiers will favour De Jongh at No 12 for Saturday’s match against Fiji.
The move makes sense in that De Jongh enjoyed terrific success alongside Bok stalwart Jaque Fourie in the 2010 Super 14, and because he hails from the Stormers he is well aware of what’s required from a No 12 in a Jacques-Nienaber-inspired defensive system.
But the Boks do have other inside centre options. Frans Steyn famously stepped in when De Villiers tore his bicep four years ago, and played a telling part in the Boks’ winning of the World Cup. James can also slot in at No 12 if required, and his experience of having won a global competition also furthers his cause for selection.
When fit, De Villiers is the Boks’ best option because he plays such an important role in organising the defence. And when the Bok forwards lay the platform, South Africa doesn’t have a better centre in the context of their game plan.
De Jongh is a different sort of player. He is less experienced than De Villiers but is more likely to break the line by using that devastating sidestep. De Jongh has done this consistently for the Stormers and has even showcased his gamebreaking ability on the world stage, scoring a try on debut against Wales in June 2010.
That he has the attacking talent is not in doubt. Indeed De Jongh has a skill set that makes him an attractive option at No 13, as apart from a line-breaking knack he also has speed to spare.
Whether he can excel in the role of an international 12 is still in question, and whether he can harness his strengths to suit the Bok game plan will become evident in the next two games. Peter de Villiers will know that Frans Steyn and James are solid inside centre alternatives, and so if De Jongh doesn’t perform he may be shifted to the back of the queue.
De Jongh needs to show that he has more than just individual ability. His performance will thus be judged by how he fares in conjunction with Morne Steyn and Fourie, and how he contributes in a team context. The Boks are going to be relying on their pack for success at this World Cup, but the centres also have crucial roles to play at the collisions. Defensively, De Jongh will need to front.
A strong showing will nail down a spot as De Villiers’s understudy in the big games, and possibly confirm a spot on the bench for the play-off matches. The next two games won’t see as much competition, pressure or intensity as those in the knock-out stage, but they will give De Jongh an opportunity to prove that he can play that pivotal No 12 role if De Villiers succumbs to injury again.