Nelspruit -What’s worse: the fact that you’re not able to play, or that a bunch of younger players are seriously impressing in your absence? It’s something Springbok captain Jean de Villiers has no doubt asked himself recently as the June Test window closes next weekend.
The experienced Bok midfielder has had to sit on the sidelines and watch his team run all over everyone they’ve come across over the past three weeks, probably wondering about his place in the squad. He need not fear though, as coach Heyneke Meyer made it pertinently clear when De Villiers got injured that his spot in the side was not in doubt.
Also, stand-in captain Victor Matfield is just that: A temporary leader until De Villiers returns to action in the coming weeks, and he’s almost sure to lead the side in the Rugby Championship.
However, De Villiers’ injury, and that of long-standing centre partner Jaque Fourie, at least afforded Meyer the opportunity to look at a few other men with an eye on the World Cup in England next year.
Frans Steyn’s withdrawal from the squad 10 days ago because of contractual issues with the SA Rugby Union further depleted the centre stocks after he’d been earmarked to fill in at inside centre.
It came as a surprise when Meyer called up Wynand Olivier, who last played Test rugby two years, for on Saturday’s match against Wales, as well as promising Paul Jordaan of the Sharks.
Neither man will go to the World Cup next year, but what the call-up of the two men has done is show just how deep the midfielder talent pool is in South African rugby.
This time last year, De Villiers was running out at inside centre with JJ Engelbrecht starring on his outside, but the latter can’t even crack the match-day squad 12 months later.
On the November tour of Europe, De Villiers teamed up with Fourie, but neither is featuring now.
The man who’s made the most of a bad injury situation, as well as Steyn’s departure from the squad, is young Bulls centre Jan Serfontein. The 21-year-old was the best of a good bunch of centres in the first Test against Wales in Durban that included British & Irish Lions centres Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, and it would appear he is now the first-choice back-up behind De Villiers.
Surprisingly, the player who also has a few ticks behind his name is JP Pietersen, who moved into the No13 jersey in Fourie’s absence and has done extremely well. A world class winger, one has to wonder whether Meyer wants a go-to guy as back-up to Fourie for next year’s World Cup, and if indeed that man is Pietersen, it can only mean that the Boks will have plenty of options in a year’s time.
However, if there was one player Meyer was desperate to see in action in June, it was Damian de Allende. The powerfully-built Stormers man had a stellar Super Rugby campaign, playing at centre and wing, and the Bok boss admitted it was a pity he couldn’t test De Allende now.
“I really wanted to see him at 13. I can tell you, if he didn’t get injured, he would have played Test rugby this month,” said Meyer, who’s been hugely impressed by De Allende’s speed and skills.
Another player to impressed this year is former SA Sevens player S’bura Sithole, who’s actually a wing but was moved in-field by Jake White at the Sharks and has shown he has a bright future ahead of him. Not given an opportunity against Wales, it is hoped Sithole gets a chance against Scotland in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
“It’s important to have some youngsters in a Springbok squad. They’re the future of this country’s senior team and they learn plenty from the experienced guys,” explained Meyer. “Just look at a guy like S’bura – he’s gained so much con-fidence by just being with us that it will serve him well when he goes back to the Sharks.
“What we’re trying to do is create a big pool of players who can be called upon at any stage. They’ll know what it’s like to play at the next level and that’s important. The fact is that the first-choice players will just not be available all the time.”
The Stormers’ Juan de Jongh, missing from the squad after picking up a severe chest infection in Durban, is another player who will never let any team down, while one cannot completely discard Jaco Taute, who’s played Test rugby at centre for Meyer in the past. There’s also Robert Ebersohn, who now plays in France but was probably a phone-call away last year from getting into the Bok set-up.
Meyer has also spoken highly of the young Kriel brothers, Dan and Jesse, who starred for the SA Under-20 team at the recent Junior World Championship. “I’ve known them for a long time and they’re good prospects. Andre Esterhuizen (also of the SA U20 squad) is also a player for the future; he’s big and strong.”
Last year’s SA Player of the Year, De Villiers, may be just a little worried, but the fact is the Bok skipper remains a class apart.