De Jongh should be centre of attention

JON CARDINELLI says Juan de Jongh has completed his Super Rugby apprenticeship and is ready to fill the void left by Jaque Fourie.

Remember Juan de Jongh? He impressed as a 21-year-old in his debut Currie Cup, so much so that he was selected for the subsequent Springbok tour to Europe. He helped the Stormers to their first ever Super Rugby final in 2010, and made his Test debut against Wales a month later.

While De Jongh looked destined for great things he never let the plaudits go to his head. He accepted that Jean de Villiers (back from a season with Irish club Munster) would partner Jaque Fourie in the 2011 Super Rugby competition, a reunion that ultimately relegated the younger player to the bench. He continued to work and wait for an opportunity, which eventually arrived when Fourie announced his move to Japan.

A lot was said about Fourie’s decision to leave the franchise, as it left the Stormers without one of their most pivotal players. Much was written in 2011 about the loss of Johann Sadie, an incredible prospect who moved to the Bulls because his path was blocked by the likes of De Villiers, Fourie and De Jongh. Most recently, it was said that Bryan Habana had the experience and skills to offset the loss of Fourie, while the talented WP duo of JP du Plessis and Michael van der Spuy would also come into their own as 13s for the Cape franchise.

Why is it that there’s been so much excitement around every prospective midfielder in the Cape bar De Jongh? If anything, the 2012 season should be a massive one for the outside centre with the aggressive tackling style and deceptive sidestep.

With Fourie no longer in the mix, De Jongh will enjoy an extended run at No 13, a crucial position in the Stormers’ attacking and defensive system. He will play the big games alongside De Villiers, and providing the pair enjoys success at Super Rugby level, they should continue that partnership into the Test season.

Stormers coach Allister Coetzee selected Habana at outside centre last week, explaining the move as one that would have long-term benefits for the team. Coetzee said that Habana would shift from wing to centre in the event of injury, as was the case when the Cape franchise played the Kings in Port Elizabeth. Habana was picked at No 13 because De Jongh had sustained a jaw injury in an earlier warm-up game against the Lions.

At this stage, De Jongh is still expected to start against the Hurricanes in the Stormers’ first game of the season. As Coetzee has clarified, De Jongh is the first-choice outside centre in the squad while Habana’s move to the midfield is a work in progress.

Habana may have started his career in the centres, but it was on the wing that he excelled for the Bulls and the Boks. One of his worst performances in a green and gold jersey was at outside centre, and after that forgettable performance against Ireland in 2006 he was never played in midfield again.

The Sharks are also currently trialing JP Pietersen, Habana’s wing partner at the Boks, at No 13 in their warm-up matches. While there may be merit in boosting the depth at the respective franchises, it’s madness to talk about Habana or Pietersen as prospective Test centres when there are already existing centre options. Yes, De Jongh and a player like Sadie will need to show consistency in the coming tournament, but Habana and Pietersen aren’t even in the midfield pecking order just yet.

De Jongh is only 23, but has experienced two Super Rugby tournaments and a World Cup. He’s grown into a fine player and yet there could be more to come.

If he is handed an extended opportunity at Super Rugby level and allowed to mature alongside De Villiers, he may eventually reach a point where he can challenge the likes of Fourie for the mantle of best 13 on the planet. He’s always been tipped as something special, and with Fourie no longer standing in his way, he may finally realise his full potential.

Follow JC on Twitter
Follow SA Rugby magazine on Twitter