JON CARDINELLI writes that Peter de Villiers will come to regret a campaign-defining decision made on the basis of one missed penalty attempt.
13 August 2011, South Africa vs Australia at Kings Park. Butch James, the man earmarked by the Springbok selectors to play No 10 at the World Cup, steps forward to attempt a penalty goal. The wind blows the ball off the tee, and so James asks team-mate Heinrich Brussow to hold it steady. James then rushes the kick, hooking it to the left of the uprights.
The Boks went on to lose that Test, but a truthful account will show that the hosts were fortunate not to concede more points. One missed penalty attempt did not cost them the game, but it was enough for De Villiers to jettison James and reinstate Morne Steyn. It was after the subsequent game in Port Elizabeth where De Villiers would claim that the Boks had the flyhalf and the template to win the Webb Ellis Cup.
James was done a dirty, and South African rugby regressed four years. The coach and selectors invested in a flyhalf and game plan that while successful against B-sides and lesser teams, proved limited when implemented against the well-rounded All Blacks and Wallabies.
Fast forward eight weeks to the build-up to the Boks’ quarter-final showdown with the Wallabies in Wellington. I find James in a gloomy corner of the team hotel. His shoulders are hunched and he wears a resigned look. He’s well prepared for the media’s questions, professing his unwavering support for the team and the coach’s preferred flyhalf, but throughout the interview you get the sense that he’s as bleak as the Wellington weather.
‘Morne is playing well and the team is playing well. I’m happy to fill a bench role. I’ve been out on the training field doing my best, and I don’t think that I will let the team down if I’m called on in a game situation,’ he offers.
The conversation is steered towards that fateful day in Durban, the day the Boks’ entire World Cup game plan was changed because of one missed kick. James has never been one to dwell on the past, but when pushed, he says that he should have made that opportunity count.
‘I didn’t do my chances of selection any good when I missed that kick. It was disconcerting when the ball blew over, but an international player should still get those kicks over. There are a lot of excuses I could use, but the bottom line is that I missed.’
James will tell you that he is a competent goal-kicker, and his record will substantiate the big talk. Before that Test in Durban, he average 83% in Test matches, a record that’s right up there with the best in the world. He gets annoyed when people make definitive statements about his ability based on one bad performance or kick.
In the early noughties, it was his controversial tackling style that drew unwanted attention. Butch enjoys the big defensive hits, but he became unfairly tagged as a thug when a few of the more exuberant tackle attempts slipped up past the shoulder.
In much the same way he’s been labelled an incompetent goal-kicker because of a few fluffed attempts. And it’s not just the uneducated laymen who have drawn false conclusions. Going by what transpired after that Test in Durban, the supposed brains trust of South African rugby is guilty of the same poor judgment.
Will it cost the Boks their World Cup campaign? The Boks are talking about their recent pool matches as if they’ve progressed. They are talking up Steyn as if he’s the key to their success.
The reality is that they haven’t been challenged by a top team like they were in Durban two months ago. Wales pushed them close in the Pool D opener, and exposed their defensive frailties in the flyhalf channel, but subsequent successes against minnows like Fiji, Namibia and Samoa have installed a false sense of defensive security. The upshot is that the Boks believe Steyn can shore up that flyhalf channel and keep the Aussies at bay.
James feels that the Wallabies will come at the Boks this Sunday. The driving rain experienced in Wellington this week is expected to cease by the time the match kicks off, and this should allow the Aussies to play a high-tempo, ball-in-hand game. The probable selection of Berrick Barnes at No 12 will also lend the Wallabies a sharper edge.
‘Pat McCabe is a very direct, physical player, whereas a guy like Berrick gives them more attacking options from a distribution point of view,’ said James.
‘The Aussies like to attack with width, and although a quarter-final may change their thinking slightly and force them to play a bit tighter initially, I don’t think it will be too long before they move the ball around. It’s their strength, and they should stick to it.’
The Wallabies will target Steyn’s channel this Sunday. They will have taken note of Wales’ attacking success against South Africa in the pool stages, and will be aware of Steyn’s dislike for contact.
Be it on attack or defence, the Boks will miss James’ physicality. Playing against the Wallabies two months ago, he made a big impression on defence. The Bok backline also looked more imposing when James was directing the attacking traffic.
Penalties and drop goals won’t see the Boks home against a Wallabies side that has the capacity to score tries against the best defences. De Villiers will rue the decision to preclude James from the starting line-up and limit the Boks to an outdated style. In the aftermath of a quarter-final exit, the South African rugby community will ponder what could have been If only that ball had stayed on the tee.