In the first of a new series, lionsrugby.com takes a closer look at the selection dilemmas facing Springbok head coach Peter de Villiers ahead of this summer’s Lions tour. First up, the pivotal position of fly-half.
It is still one of the biggest debates in South African ruby, and it is a question British & Irish Lions head coach Ian McGeechan will be seeking an early answer to as he plots his side’s tactics for this summer’s Test series against the World Champions.
Who will play at No10 for the Springboks? The quick answer is Ruan Piennar, the Sharks’ outside-half who was given the jersey in November last year by Springbok coach Peter de Villiers.
With World Cup winning stand-off Butch James signed up for three years at Bath, de Villiers wanted to make a fresh start and seek out the best candidate to take the Boks through to their defence of the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2011.
The 24-year-old former scrum-half was the new coach’s choice and he was introduced with a fair fanfare by his coach.
"He is good enough already and can become one of the world’s greats at fly-half. He is one of the best rugby players in our country, if not the best at the moment," de Villiers said after announcing his team to face Wales last autumn.
"I am really excited just watching the kid and seeing how he goes about doing the stuff."
To be fair, Pienaar got his new career off to a flying start as he guided the South Africans to three successive victories in the UK, culminating in a record victory over England at Twickenham in which he scored 20 points.
In fact, the experiment of playing him at No10 worked a treat as he scored a total of 40 points in the three wins over Wales, Scotland and England.
But while de Villiers and the convenor of the Springbok selectors, Peter Jooste, are convinced the 25-year-old is the man to take on the Lions, there are many who fear his goalkicking might not be good enough and that de Villiers might be falling into the same trap as befell one of his predecessors in 1997, Carel du Plessis.
He went into the first two Tests of that 1997 series against McGeechan’s Lions without a recognised goalkicker. By the time he introduced Percy Montgomery for the third Test, the series had gone to McGeechan and Martin Johnson.
Springbok fans are petrified of a similar outcome and Pienaar’s poor kicking for the Sharks in the opening rounds of the Super 14 has made them even more nervous. It go so bad in the matches against the Stormers and Lions that his half-back partner Rory Kockott had to take over.
And that led to Kockott being given the job of first-choice kicker when the Sharks went on their tour to New Zealand and Australia. To add to Pienaar’s woes, he picked up a knee ligament injury that will keep him on the sidelines for plenty of next month.
Ruan Pienaar is rated very highly by the Springbok management
But none of this seems to have unnerved de Villiers, who last week claimed Pienaar was still his top choice.
"I am not worried. We will score tries and see to it that they (the Lions) don’t," De Villiers told Stephen Nell of Die Burger.
"I’m not looking for a fly-half that can kick. I’m looking for a fly-half that can also kick. You get fly-halves that are playmakers and others that are decision-makers – Ruan is both.
"Ruan, Jean de Villiers and Adrian Jacobs are the kind of players that will maybe make three mistakes, but cross the advantage line seven times. I accepted Ruan may miss one or two kicks, but he did the job for us – he is one of the best.
"He strikes the ball sweetly. I did not have another kicker at the end of last year because I did not need another one."
Whatever the coaches and selectors feel, the statistics prove that the Springbok No10 jersey has been a very uncomfortable shirt on the back of many players. Since Henry Honiball stepped down from international rugby after the third place play-off victory over New Zealand at the 1999 Rugby World Cup, the Springboks have chopped and changed their pivotal player almost every year.
You have to go back to 2004 for the last time they went through a season with the same player occupying thefly-half spot – Jaco van der Westhuyzen in all 13 Tests. He made 17 successive appearances, the most since Honiball’s departure a decade ago.
Pienaar has got three good performances under his belt away from home. Now he has to stand up to all the pressure of delivering on home soil in the biggest Test series South Africa has known since 1997.
The prospect of James playing against the Springbok squad for a Namibian Invitational XV is being viewed by many as a potential back door opening for the Bath star to creep back into the reckoning. Otherwise, de Villiers is likely to have to look to the current crop of Super 14 players as his No10 options.
Bath’s in-form Butch James could still face the Lions this summer
Pienaar’s Sharks team-mate Francois Steyn is capable of stepping into the breach for both province and country, while Morne Steyn has been highly consistent for the table topping Bulls – and been playing in tandem with de Villiers’ top-choice scrum-half Fourie du Preez.
The Stormers have the highly physical Peter Grant in their ranks, although he hasn’t been first-choice of late with Willem de Waal starting in the last two games. The Lions’ André Pretorius has made his comeback to big-time rugby after an injury-ravaged 2008 season, but hasn’t made the impact his coach Eugene Eloff had been hoping for. Earl Rose has been given his chance by Eloff, but not really grasped it with both hands.
So it is anybody’s guess who will wear the shirt if Pienaar’s knee doesn’t improve, or his goalkicking isn’t up to scratch.
The Springboks’ at No 10 since 2000
(number of tests played in a row in brackets)
2000: Braam van Straaten (3), Louis Koen (1), Van Straaten (4), Percy Montgomery (3), Van Straaten (1)
2001: Butch James (2), Montgomery (1), James (4), Van Straaten (1), Koen (3)
2002: André Pretorius (7), Brent Russell (1), Pretorius (1), James (1), Pretorius (1)
2003: Koen (9), Derick Hougaard (3)
2004: Jaco van der Westhuyzen (13)
2005: Van der Westhuyzen (4), Pretorius (6), Meyer Bosman (2)
2006: Van der Westhuyzen (4), James (3), Pretorius (3), James (1), Pretorius (1)
2007: James (2), Hougaard (1), James (2), Hougaard (2), James (4), Pretorius (1), James (4), Pretorius (1)
2008: James (2), Frans Steyn (1), James (7), Ruan Pienaar (3)
(Table compiled by Stephen Nell)