Untapped potential

JON CARDINELLI says the best is yet to come from Jean de Villiers.

How do you kill the Sonny Bill Thrill? It was the question on everyone’s lips in the week before the 7 May clash between the Stormers and Crusaders, a question that gathered momentum as a technical enquiry to the point where it entered the realm of rhetorical hyperbole.

In the blue and white corner was the unglamorous challenger, a veteran of 67 Tests, two Tri-Nations titles, a British & Irish Lions series victory and a World Cup triumph. In the black and red corner was the more marketable rookie complete with tribal tattoos, a burgeoning boxing career and an imitable if not devastating signature move.

The question was asked more and more as the bout drew closer, and few people stopped to consider that the comparison was absurd. The question was arse about face, and to his credit, Sonny Bill Williams admitted as much two days before the match.

All hype aside, Williams and centre partner Robbie Fruean had come to Cape Town to find out if they measured up. If there was a thrill to be killed, it was the thrill of the Stormers’ decorated pair. If there was a point to be proved, well, the Crusaders had it all to do. And if there was a favourite in the perceived one-on-one contest between Jean de Villiers and Williams, all rational analysis pointed to the local man.

Williams’s words of endorsement left most of the rugby community in disbelief, but he put the matter into perspective.

‘The reason I came to union was to challenge myself,’ he said. ‘There’s no better centre than Jean de Villiers to see where I’m at. I would have to say that Jean will be the biggest challenge thus far.’

The game flashed by with Williams contributing four inspired offloads, two of which led to tries and two of which led to try-scoring opportunities that were squandered through poor finishing. The final scoreline reflected a famous 20-14 win for the Crusaders, but it was a performance that revealed several shortcomings and the midfield of Williams and Fruean didn’t escape unscathed. De Villiers and Fourie gave as good as they got, and Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder declared the midfield spoils shared.

Blackadder gave credit where it was due, but the former All Blacks captain’s statement did nothing to prevent an avalanche of post-match analyses and comments on what the perceived outcome of this particular battle portended for the World Cup.

Most watched the clash having already decided that any success for the Crusaders would spell trouble for the Springboks. One particular image of Williams smashing De Villiers off his feet was captured, framed and labelled as a sign of things to come. But the battle was never going to be that simple. De Villiers himself remembers
it differently.

‘I didn’t pay attention to what was being said in the media,’ he says. ‘For me it was just another big game. Sonny Bill is a good player, but you can’t get hung up on personal battles because you don’t go up against your opposite number in every single situation. There are so many other things to worry about. You have to trust in the guy next to you and work together to beat the opposition.

‘It was funny to read and hear all the opinions and comments after that game. In my opinion, the best centre on the day was Jaque Fourie, and when the best player is on your own team, you take it as a compliment.’

At that point of the season, De Villiers had already featured prominently in some of the Stormers’ historic, and some would say season-defining, wins. He was at the centre of a rare triumph at Loftus Versfeld when a combination of grit and guile proved the undoing of the title-holding Bulls. He had an important hand in the two victories over the Springbok-laden Sharks. The match-up with the Crusaders was always going to demand more, but he went into that game having enhanced his reputation as a player who comes to the fore in pressure situations.

Former Wales and Lions No 12 Scott Gibbs watched closely during that 7 May match. He believes Blackadder’s assessment of the midfield battle was fair, and agrees with De Villiers when the Springbok centre says that rugby is more complicated than a one-on-one match-up.

‘It’s more about how the combinations fare than 12 on 12. To beat a guy like Sonny Bill, you have to work as a team. The man marking him has to act as the sheepdog, herding him towards his team-mates to effect the gang tackle. There was a perception that Sonny Bill got the best of Jean and Jaque in that match, but I feel that the Stormers boys did reasonably well.’

When mentors, opposition coaches, rivals and team-mates discuss De Villiers, they speak glowingly about his ability to read the game and play his team into promising positions. Stormers backline coach Robbie Fleck says that De Villiers has acquired a subtlety that is perhaps not duly recognised or praised often enough. Since he’s returned from a season in Europe, the little changes have made a big difference.

‘I said it before when he was playing for the Boks in last year’s Tri-Nations, and it’s been even more apparent in his efforts for the Stormers in 2011. He’s grown up, there’s a new presence about him, and while it’s been beneficial for his own game, it’s allowed Jaque Fourie and especially a young guy like Juan de Jongh to flourish. It’s massively important for South African rugby in a World Cup year,’ says Fleck.

‘When you go into a different environment, you expose yourself to new ideas. Jean’s used that experience abroad to better himself; he’s taken every little thing he’s learnt by playing with or against Irish, English, French, Aussie and Kiwi coaches and players and decided on what works for him and what doesn’t. By gathering all that information, by taking on new ideas that most players who stay in South Africa don’t have access to, he’s been able to mould himself into a pretty complete rugby player.’

South African fans hate to lose, so a boring yet pragmatic style will be tolerated as long as the Springboks obtain the necessary results. Last season was a failure on both counts, as an outdated and limited game plan was largely responsible for the Boks’ one-from-six record in the Tri-Nations. The team managed to win three out of four on the subsequent tour to the home nations, but the strategy and selection policies continued to stifle growth and creativity.

The backline attack has been pedestrian for some time, and while Fleck believes De Villiers is the man capable of conjuring the try-scoring opportunities, there has to be some honesty when assessing the team’s tactics. De Villiers freely admits that his own game could be sharper, but intimates that other changes need to be made before the Springboks can even think about evolving.

‘A lot will depend on which individuals are selected and what game plan is favoured to benefit those individuals,’ he says.

De Villiers would never go so far as to say it, but the Boks are hampered by the selection of Morné Steyn at No 10. Steyn is favoured for his goal- and tactical-kicking accuracy, but the last two Test seasons have shown that he adds nothing to the backline attack.

Selecting a flyhalf with the capacity to trouble opposition defenders will allow the Boks to extract full attacking value from De Villiers, Fourie and a host of exciting South African outside backs. As Gibbs suggests, backing a flyhalf with what should be a mandatory attacking skill set will make De Villiers, and the Boks as a whole, a more dangerous prospect.

‘The midfield combination is important but I’d argue that the 10-12 combination is even more important,’ Gibbs says. ‘The Boks need to get that right if they hope to improve. Maybe they need to look at alternative partnerships, like starting Butch James alongside Jean because at the moment Morné Steyn isn’t cutting it as an international flyhalf. He’s not the type of player who attacks the line or creates space for his centres to run.

‘That bit of space or extra split second of time can make all the difference at the highest level. If you’re not creating that space, you’re allowing the opposition to
drift and close down your backline.

‘It’s almost become a premeditated thing when teams play against a South African side that has Steyn at 10. Henry Honiball was great at fixing his defender and creating the space for his 12 to attack, and that in turn allowed the outside backs more space to run. The Boks certainly could do with a Honiball-type player at the World Cup.

‘They’re always going to have the meatheads up front to win the battle at the gain line, but they need to start bringing their backline into play a lot more. They’re not using that 10-12 combination to generate momentum or create the space for penetrative attacks. Steyn obviously doesn’t complement that sort of game plan. It’s something the selectors have to look at if they want to avoid making the same mistakes as last year. They were far too predictable.’

Gibbs has also been critical of the Stormers in 2011, as the try-scoring stats will verify that they’ve battled to create opportunities on attack. While replacing Steyn in the Springbok set-up is the first step towards an attacking improvement, Gibbs believes many of the South African teams are yet to embrace the attacking dimension and this is what’s preventing rare talents like De Villiers from realising their full potential.

Williams, Dan Carter and Quade Cooper are placed on the pedestal, but how much of their success is down to the backing of their coaches and administration? It’s an unfortunate truth that in South Africa we tend to shackle our playmakers rather than give them the necessary encouragement and room to grow.

‘I don’t believe the Stormers or the Boks are using Jean correctly,’ fumes Gibbs. ‘He has plenty more to give, and I can empathise with his frustrations. We’ve only seen glimpses of what he’s capable of since he returned from Ireland. I’d like to see more of it. It’s important that the Stormers and the Boks make the necessary changes, because freeing up Jean will in turn free up Jaque Fourie. You want to get the best out of those players as a combination.’

There is still time to tinker with that Bok template ahead of this year’s World Cup, and it’s encouraging to know that while results didn’t go their way in 2010, they still have the raw materials to win the tournament. The Bok pack is capable of physically dominating any forward unit at the World Cup, and when they provide the platform, you have to believe that South Africa can beat New Zealand regardless of the home advantage.

But what does need to change is the manner in which that forward dominance is translated into points. Some will argue that conservative tactics are needed to win a World Cup, but as seen in 2010, the Boks can no longer afford to be one dimensional.

Men like Jean de Villiers need to be unleashed and afforded the support to tap into their potential. Creativity must be encouraged. Whether De Villiers lives up to the ‘world’s best’ tag bestowed upon him by Williams before that 7 May match will depend largely on team selection at the global tournament. And if De Villiers is given the room to reign, the Boks will be closer to realising their ambitions of total rugby.

– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine. The August issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 27 July.