JJ’s the present and the future

MARK KEOHANE, in his Business Day column, rates the Springboks’ first Test of the season.

JJ Engelbrecht is the present and the future at outside centre for the Springboks. His pace is unmatched among international 13s. He has strength and his only vulnerability remains a defensive inexperience in the position.

I hope Bok coach Heyneke Meyer invests in him as a No 13 and doesn’t move him back to the wing. He will be a good international winger but he has the potential to be a very good outside centre.

The cliché among coaches is you can’t coach speed. It is also true. Fast runners can marginally improve their pace but express pace is something that very few outside centres have. Engelbrecht’s pace gives the Boks an edge, especially if his inside backs work the space and width effectively and can fashion ball delivery that allows Engelbrecht to attack the outside shoulder of his opposite defender.

His distribution will improve the more he plays but Jacque Fourie’s distribution in the early part of his international career was also an area that required work.

There are passers and runners in a team. Mistakes have been made in the past in wanting to make the runners passers and the passers runners.

Engelbrecht’s strength is his running, so any assessment should focus primarily on whether he is running the right angles of attack and whether he is running with purpose and with impact on the gain line.

Engelbrecht, against Italy, ran excellent support running lines, he was strong in the tackle and his only defensive error was on occasion shooting up too quickly and disrupting the line of the defensive wall. Better opposition, in more intense Test match environments, only need one Bok defensive mistake to win the match.

Engelbrecht, not rated in Western Province and seen only as a back up Super Rugby wing, has evolved as a rugby player with the Bulls. He is not the first to have improved since making the move North and he won’t be the last.

The Bulls are the most balanced South African team and their back play is most complete. Former Bok wing Pieter Rossouw, under the direction of head coach Frans Ludeke, has been influential in an attacking mindset change.

The Bulls play intelligent rugby and the group of Bok players Meyer is developing are good enough to improve their rugby intelligence.

Playing intelligently is the key to success in Test rugby. The very best teams play with intelligence, an appreciation for field position and the confidence to attack, regardless of field position, but they also play with recognition that to kick is not necessarily representative of a negative mindset. Intelligent kicking shows an understanding of the match situation.

I thought the Boks were intelligent in how they played the Italians. They got the explosive start and when forced to play without the ball for a good 20 minutes in the opening quarter of the second half they maintained composure and structure.

The Test showed an effectiveness on attack and also a doggedness in defence. Italy are always going to be more workmanlike than maverick and they won’t score 14 points in two or three minutes.

There will be far greater examinations of the Bok defence and of their attacking game, but first up in 2013 the performance represented a decent outing.

Engelbrecht was the highlight for me. Bryan Habana showed his experience and at least ran with intent and not the restriction of being cautious for fear of making a mistake.

Scrumhalf Jano Vermaak’s distribution was key to the pace of the Bok backs and Morne Steyn’s attack benefited because of the quick delivery. It’s a pity he got injured.

Willie le Roux was adventurous and eccentric. This needs to be encouraged but as Le Roux settles into Test rugby he also has to add more balance to his all-round game. His unpredictability can become a predictability against the better teams.

Le Roux’s decision-making will improve with more game time, but a more accurate assessment of his fullback play will be made following a Rugby Championship campaign.

Le Roux does have X-factor, as does loose-forward Arno Botha. He got a break because of injury to Willem Alberts and it underlined the immense depth of quality loose-forwards in South Africa.

The experiment to convert Coenie Oosthuizen into a tighthead is going to take time, but because of the dearth of world class tighteads in the game it is an experiment that must be given the necessary time.

Adriaan Strauss was another who has grown internationally in Bismarck du Plessis’s injury absence and sides like New Zealand and Australia would love to have the hooker depth available to the Bok coach.

I was again impressed with Steyn’s control of the game at flyhalf and I don’t share the view of the many on social media forums who continue to have an issue with every aspect of Pierre Spies’s game. I thought he was as effective as he needed to be, which is consistent with the team’s overall performance.