by Len Kaplan
For all the Springboks advancement in coaching, strategy, selection and man-management under Heyneke Meyer, and an abundance of assuredly Test-quality players in most positions, there have been two positions of concern.
With the preeminent number five lock Andries Bekker playing club rugby in Japan with a view to prolonging his career, there has been no standout five. Juandré Kruger lacks the physical presence, Flip van der Merwe is a four used on occasion at five, and Franco van der Merwe is never going to be a dominant second row at Test level.
Victor Matfield is going through a conditioning process to see whether he can make a comeback, but his last Test was in 2011, he’ll be 36 before the start of the 2014 international season, and turns 37 four months before the opening game of the 2015 World Cup. He is a superb athlete, but it’d be miraculous if he were to play in the next World Cup.
Pieter-Steph du Toit is a brilliant youngster who is expected to come through as a Test four or five, but the smart money may be on a reinvigorated Andries Bekker being a key figure in the Boks 2015 campaign.
Perhaps the most exciting selection for the Springboks November tour is the return of superbly skilful Jaque Fourie. At age 30, two years younger than the ever-youthful Jean de Villiers, Fourie could have three or four years of Test rugby ahead of him, especially after having benefitted from playing in the less demanding Japanese league.
JJ Engelbrecht is a promising young talent, but he may be a better wing than centre and he certainly hasn’t proven a major concern for Test opponents. Playing François Steyn at 12 and De Villiers at 13 is an option Heyneke Meyer has used, but wonderful players though they both are, this combination does mean moving the captain away from what remains by some way his best position, which is hardly ideal.
Fourie has shown in his 69 Test matches that he may well be as good as any 13 as has ever played rugby, and that includes an era in which we’ve enjoyed the consummate skill of Brian O’Driscoll and consistent excellence of Conrad Smith.
His skill both as refined creator and decisive finisher, his ability to beat opponents as an elusive ball-carrier, his selfless setting up of teammates, and his incisive understanding of exploiting space make him a dynamic force as an attacking 13. He can be deceptively subtle or physically imposing. His one-on-one tackling, ability to read opposition attacks and adjust defensive lines, and crucially, his organising of his backline’s defence – based on defensive nous and clear, effective communication – make him probably the best defensive back in world rugby.
The value he adds in terms of experience and composure is worth a huge amount to the Springboks performance too.
The restoration of the De Villiers – Fourie centre combination for what will be their 27th Test as a pair, will be a substantial boost to the Boks chances of going three for three on tour, and if they can stay injury-free, perhaps to the team’s success ratio through 2014 and 2015 as well.
Five lock remains a real concern for South Africa, but the intuitive genius – and honed skills – of Jaque Fourie at outside centre will turn what has been a position causing opponents little concern into a crucial focus on both defence and attack.