Butch James says he doesn’t have the skills associated with an impact player.
Preceding the Tri-Nations, James had been identified as the Springboks’ premier flyhalf for the World Cup, remaining in South Africa to prepare with the elite group of players, while a weakened side, including Morne Steyn, contested the Australasian leg of the tournament.
He started in Durban but missed a relatively easy penalty (the wind had blown the ball over in his kick approach) in the defeat to Australia and subsequently lost his place for the next Test against the All Blacks. Steyn put on a goalkicking masterclass and ousted James, with coach Peter de Villiers telling the media that Steyn had always been his man.
Steyn was clearly targeted as a defensive liability against Wales in the World Cup pool opener in Wellington on Sunday, Jamie Roberts tormenting him. His goalkicking threat was nullified by the disciplined Welsh and he offered little from an attacking perspective when playing flat to or taking on the line.
James will start against Namibia in Auckland next week, but is likely to be deployed as a reserve for the Springboks’ major matches thereafter. It is widely accepted that this is not a role suited to the 31-year-old, and he spoke openly about his limitations in this regard.
‘I don’t think I’m an impact player. I think there are other guys better suited to that role – guys that have a bit more speed to assist their linebreaking ability. I don’t have that pace and game breaking ability. I could come on and close out a game for you, which I suppose is some sort of impact. But, yeah, not an impact player in the traditional sense,’ James told keo.co.za.
James, however, added: ‘There are frustrations about playing off the bench, but I’d like to think I’m a pretty good reserve in terms of my attitude. I’m here for the team and whatever role I’m deployed in I’ll give it my best shot.’
James was instrumental in the Springboks’ successful World Cup campaign in 2007, but said then he believed it would be his last. He enjoyed a successful stint with Bath and forced his way into the Springbok squad in 2010 off the back of his excellent club form.
‘Last year when I got back into the mix with the squad was when I realised I could go another year,’ he said. ‘My body is feeling good. After 2007 I was hoping for another two years in the game but things have worked out well. In a strange way the big injuries I sustained at Bath helped prolong my career. It offered me a chance to rest and build up my body.’
James said there was a different feel to this World Cup campaign, explaining the challenge is supplementing what the senior players have lost in athleticism with a more intelligent approach and calling on their experience. He added that it would be ‘silly’ to dismiss the northern hemisphere challenge, but still felt strongly that the winner would come from one of the three southern hemisphere teams.
He continued by adding that this side was more pragmatic in its approach than the 2007 group, but was confident that with the evolution of defensive systems it was the right path to follow. ‘The longer the tournament goes on the tighter it gets [tactically],’ he said. ‘A fear of losing [in the play-off stages] tends to force teams to be more conservative. Australia and New Zealand may be the exceptions. They’ll probably back the way they play, so I wouldn’t say we’d have an advantage at that stage should we face either of them.’
Probed for his thoughts on the benefits of continuity in selection with a specific focus on the All Blacks’ fondness of rotating their side, James said: ‘There are undoubtedly huge pluses to having the same guys on your inside and outside. You build an understanding and everybody knows their role in the machine.
‘But the All Blacks rotate so often that you have to think the players are used to each other. I don’t think it will be a problem for them in the group phases. In a tight play-off match it may be different. Then is when you want established combinations.’
By Ryan Vrede, in Wellington
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