Fourie the obvious and only choice
Heyneke Meyer says he hasn’t made up his mind yet about his captain for the series against England, but with the Springbok squad only set to be announced on Saturday night, he has to say that.
The reality is that he probably made up his mind a long time ago that there were only two realistic candidates – Victor Matfield or Fourie du Preez. Even if he hadn’t been away from coaching at the coal-face at a high level for a couple of years, the new coach would have wanted someone whom he knew and trusted, and most importantly knew him and his game-plan intimately, to be an extension of himself on the field of play.
Matfield would have been his first choice and the poor form displayed just recently by Andries Bekker is starting to suggest that Meyer’s thinking wasn’t as left field as it appeared at the time. Bekker looks like he is struggling physically, with that frequent grimace not a good sign for a player who hasn’t seen action much beyond the Super Rugby phase of the last few seasons.
If Bekker goes down, or fails to recapture the form of 2010 and 2011, Matfield’s absence will leave a massive hole. The point though is that Matfield had retired and he is a good couple of years older than Du Preez, who can conceivably see out a good few more seasons in the top flight. That is why the appointment of Du Preez as captain, which is expected, should not be regarded in the same negative way that the overture to Matfield was in many quarters.
Far from hurting his career, the move to Japan might have helped the man rated as the world’s best scrumhalf at the 2007 World Cup and as the world’s best player by many of us in 2009. It was quite obvious by the time the last World Cup in New Zealand got to the knock-out stage that Du Preez was struggling with the shoulder injury that has plagued him for a while.
It was why some critics thought his career at the top level might be over. However, by all accounts Du Preez has shaken off that injury at Suntori, where he is no doubt helped by the small fact that he now only plays every second week in a fairly low intensity competition instead of every week in a high intensity, bruising one like Super Rugby.
Being in Japan does have its downside and we will only know when the first test against England starts just how ready he is to play international rugby again. We haven’t been able to gauge his form against that of his contemporaries and rivals for the Bok No 9 jersey. Then there are the contractual issues that Meyer says he has to sort out with Du Preez’s Japanese employers.
But the fears that choosing Du Preez as captain might irritate those players who have stayed on and played in the country shouldn’t be countenanced. The man is just too good a player, and has achieved too much in the game, plus has been a team leader at the Springboks for far too long, for him not to command the respect of his teammates.
He is also the only scrumhalf with the ability to deliver what Meyer wants from his scrumhalf, which is a pinpoint tactical kicking game and enough hang time on his box kicks to make contesting those kicks easy for the chasers. Ulster-based Ruan Pienaar is the next best in the mould, so Francois Hougaard, who just lately has shown up a few weaknesses in his game that may vindicate those who say his best position could be wing, may have to bide his time.
The only other contender for the job was Jean de Villiers, particularly now that Bismarck du Plessis has surely with his recent form shaded out the challenge of Adriaan Strauss for the first-choice hooker position. De Villiers though has never played under Meyer. Schalk Burger has his supporters and may even stake a claim for the long-term role when he is fit again but he is arguably not the technically strong leader that Meyer would want.
The coach has to be comfortable with his captain, and Du Preez is the only player currently still playing the game who can deliver that comfort in this first series. It is why once Matfield was ruled out it always came down to a question not of whether Meyer wanted Du Preez to be captain, but whether he would be available to lead. Meyer did confirm on Monday in Umhlanga Rocks that his meeting with Du Preez last week was fruitful and that he is available to captain. That should have ended the speculation for not only would Du Preez be the right choice, he would also be the only choice.