I have noticed with increasing bemusement the discussion in the media of Heyneke Meyer’s dilemma regarding what to do with Jean de Villiers given the form of the centres that have played in the Rugby Championship.

With the greatest respect to Damian de Allende and Jessie Kriel, what dilemma?! After 120 years of Test rugby, it is a truism that tight Test matches are often won because of rock-solid leadership and decision-making at critical times in the match. And at World Cups, knock-out games produce white-hot pressure that is on another scale to a usual Test match. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, “When all are losing their heads around you, if you can keep yours, you are a man my son.”

That will be Jean de Villiers when all hell breaks loose in a quarter-final, semi or even final in England.

pic Conrad Smith prepares to tackle Jean de Villiers

De Villiers is a fine rugby player and by the time he has continued his comeback through the two games against Argentina and featured in the Pool games of the World Cup, he will not be far off his best, while offering priceless leadership and experience.
It is for the same reason that Meyer will secretly be patting himself on the back for recalling Victor Matfield from retirement. Matfield, deputising for the injured De Villiers in the Rugby Championship, was conspicuous by his leadership absence for most of the math against Australia (because of injury) and all of the Test against the All Blacks.

I am certain that if the shrewd Matfield had been on the field for the duration of both matches, the Boks would have won both them.

Matfield left the field 18 minutes into the match against the Wallabies and watched from the stands as the Boks lost their heads – and their substantial lead – when the Aussies launched their comeback in the final quarter.

Matfield is a master at closing out games and no doubt would have made a few significantly different calls that could have saved that game. With 30 seconds left on the clock, the Boks had an opportunity to kick the ball out and time would have run out before the lineout could have been formed but instead kept it among the forwards and subsequently were penalised, eventually leading to the match-winning try.

It was not that dissimilar a situation in the second half against New Zealand, when the Boks lost firm direction. For instance, Matfield would not have given in without a fight to the referee’s decision to have uncontested scrums because Trevor Nyakane, the substitute for Vincent Koch (in turn on for injured Jannie du Plessis), was not listed as a tighthead. Technically the ref was correct, going by the team-sheet he would have been given pre-game, but a strong captain would have pointed out that Nyakane would have been comfortable at tighthead, having played there half a dozen times for the Bulls this season.

The Boks’ could well have won that game had they been allowed to exploit their scrumming advantage, especially with the All Blacks having a lock in the bin at that time.

This sounds like a criticism of Schalk Burger, the captain in the absence of Matfield (and De Villiers), but he is a different type of captain to the wily Matfield and the calming De Villiers. Burger leads from the front and is so busy getting stuck in that he sometimes does not see the bigger picture. He should be left to be being the warrior that he is.

The 2007 Super Rugby final at Kings Park is a classic example of how the absence of a strong captain can cost you a match. The Sharks’ coaching staff blundered by subbing captain John Smit (and goal kicker Percy Montgomery) and the hosts imploded in the final minutes to afford the Bulls the opportunity to snatch a famous last-minute win.

Smit stood helplessly on the sidelines as his team made a number of tactical errors, and then there was the hopeless confusion as to who should take the conversion after Albert van den Berg had scored what should have been the title-clinching try. Instead of stand in skipper AJ Venter insisting on the experienced Butch James taking the kick, an impetuous, 19-year-old Frans Steyn grabbed the ball, rushed his kick, missed, and the door was opened for Matfield’s Bulls to win the game by scoring a seven-pointer …

It is almost certain that the Sharks would have won that final had Smit been on the field in that mad final ten minutes.

It is no co-incidence that the countries that have won the Webb Ellis Cup have had remarkable captains – the likes of Francois Pienaar, Richie McCaw, John Eales, Martin Johnson, Smit and Nick Farr-Jones.

De Villiers is a leader of that calibre. It is why Meyer has been so anxious to get the centre fit. Great teams are built around great captains. With both De Villiers and Matfield on the field in England, the Boks will have priceless leadership that could be the difference between winning and losing.

By Mike Greenaway

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