The Springbok selectors have a busy few days ahead. They have made a commitment to announce the touring team to play Test matches in Britain in November after the Currie Cup final next Saturday.
Leaving aside the fact that political machinations may preclude the tourists from calling themselves Springboks, there are a number of positions open to debate.
The play in the last month of Sharks number eight Ryan Kankowski should make him a shoo-in, but there are two Bulls players ahead of him. Pierre Spies is the incumbent, while Danie Rossouw proved himself an ideal man for the softer fields of the northern hemisphere during last year’s World Cup. Any other nation would thank its lucky stars to have one of the three to choose from. These are fortunate times for South African rugby.
There will also be robust debate about who to send as back-up to the great Schalk Burger as an open side flank. There is a groundswell of opinion in favour of Lions captain Cobus Grobbelaar, while the events of the past week have ended whatever slim chance Luke Watson may have had. Two prodigious young talents have an outside chance of featuring: Deon Stegmann of the Bulls and Heinrich Brussow of the Cheetahs.
But the real debate will take place behind the scrum. This country is never short of quality loose forwards, but it battles for flyhalves.
The incumbent is Butch James. Many critics were surprised by the quality of James’s play in 2007. Coach Jake White used him initially as a stopgap measure while Andre Pretorius was battling an injury that refused to heal. Time eventually ran out for the Lions pivot, but by the time the World Cup arrived James had earned the trust of his coach and was never going to be dropped anyway.
The James who played in 2008 looked a pale shadow of last year’s model and it is not hard to understand why. For most of the season scrumhalf Fourie du Preez was unavailable. New coach Peter de Villiers put his trust in Ricky Januarie during Du Preez’s absence. He was rewarded with a dazzling try by Januarie in Dunedin to beat the All Blacks, but as the Western Province man’s star waxed, James’s waned.
James has never been a good tactical kicker. He needs too much time to shift the ball from hand to boot and Januarie’s shovel pass stripped him of those vital split seconds. Du Preez, on the other hand, has the crispest pass in the business and a kicking game to die for. Put simply, Du Preez made all the important decisions long before James ever got the ball.
James’s move from the Sharks to Bath in the English premiership should have cooked his goose. But on a pre-international season pilgrimage, De Villiers included James on his must-have list with Victor Matfield, Percy Montgomery and John Smit. In hindsight it is easy to say De Villiers was wrong, but if Du Preez had been fit the whole season, things may have turned out differently.
There will be those who argue that James’s experience of English conditions should make him a certainty to tour, but the time has surely come for the Springbok selectors to be bold and leave James in peace. There are, after all, plenty of options right now.
WP’s Peter Grant has several caps and a wise head on young shoulders. He’s a straight runner, a good distributor and an improving place kicker who defends his channel well. He works well alongside the mercurial Jean de Villiers and really lacks only one thing that great flyhalves need: pace.
It’s a similar story for the uncapped Morne Steyn of the Bulls. Steyn has come into his kingdom since his rival for the number-10 jersey, Derick Hougaard, moved from the Bulls to Leicester. He’s a better kicker than Grant, but less inspired with ball in hand. Moreover, Steyn has been so totally immersed in the structured rugby of the Bulls, that it is difficult to visualise him prospering under the laissez faire tutelage of De Villiers.
It may be that neither Steyn nor Grant will make the cut and that, in the absence of James, De Villiers will look within the squad for a replacement. That means either Frans Steyn or Ruan Pienaar. Neither has been playing at flyhalf for the Sharks, but each has the ability to play there at international level. Of course, they are also both capable of playing fullback, centre and wing, but those are stories for another day.
Traditionally Springbok touring teams contain a shock selection (or two). Is it possible that anyone with influence has had a look at a 20-year-old coloured kid who attends the Harmony Sports Academy in Welkom and turns out in the first division of the Currie Cup for the Griffons? His name is Branco du Preez and, if there is any justice in the world of sport, he is going to be a superstar.