It is the million-dollar question. In 2015 is Fourie du Preez still the match-winner that guided the Boks to the 2007 Rugby World Cup and the Bulls to three Super Rugby titles?
Du Preez himself thinks so, and Heyneke Meyer is certainly of that belief, and the coach’s dogged loyalty to the publicity-shy 33-year-old has to be admired. Nobody knows Du Preez better than the man who coached him at the Bulls for a decade, and Meyer won’t budge on the Du Preez issue.
Du Preez, a scrumhalf that has barely played in the last year because of injury and is barely known to younger South African fans, will be the general to guide the Boks in England, rendering the flyhalf question of secondary importance.
And the No 10 question has been itself keenly debated since last November, when Handre Pollard was the starting flyhalf against Ireland in Dublin but Patrick Lambie the incumbent in the position when the tour ended in Cardiff.
That switched around in the Rugby Championship, perhaps due to Lambie being injured for almost all of Super Rugby and Pollard playing some fine matches for the Bulls, notably when the Sharks were defeated at Loftus in the second round, the game before Lambie suffered a neck veterbrae injury.
Without taking anything away from Pollard and Lambie, the way Meyer sees it, Fourie is key, and was a chief reason for the Boks winning the World Cup back in 2007.
It should be remembered that Andre Pretorius was the No 1 choice flyhalf when the squad arrived in France but managed to play his way out of the role in the Pool games, especially after a shocker against Tonga, and it was Butch James that came in as the starting flyhalf.
James, cool and unflustered, was the perfect supporting act for Du Preez, who marshalled the Boks’ game plan and oversaw them to the title. Du Preez called the shots, and James calmly did what he was told.
Du Preez was similarly influential in the Bulls ’ three Super Rugby title triumphs, and Meyer is convinced the 70-cap veteran can orchestrate one more title triumph.
But is he still the same player? We do not know because he has been based in Japan for the last four years, but Du Preez reckons the high-paced Japanese game has made him a better player because it has forced him to be quicker to the breakdown and to make quicker decisions.
The demure, spotlight-shy Du Preez, is reported to have said that he would not have made himself available to Meyer if he did not believe he was still the best scrumhalf in South Africa, and could do the same job he did in 2007.
In 2011, he was powerless in a quarter-final fiasco in Wellington where referee Bryce Lawrence did not police the breakdowns and rendered Du Preez powerless to influence the game.
Pollard, the prodigy, is likely to partner Du Preez in the ideal starting line-up. The physically imposing 21-year-old will give the Boks an added attacking dimension, especially if put into space by Du Preez.
Pollard has that X factor that coaches so often speak about and Du Preez is the player to bring it to the fore.
Lambie, in his own quiet way, also has match-winner written all over him, and he might well force himself ahead of Pollard. Meyer was given plenty of food for thought when Lambie played an immaculate tactical game in the win over the Pumas in Buenos Aires after having been on the bench in the other Rugby Championship games.
And then there is the old campaigner, Morne Steyn, a proven match winner who can be called on to do the job should injury strike Pollard, Lambie or both. He is Meyer’s banker, the veteran who has done it all before and seldom been found wanting in high pressure situations.
So flyhalf is well taken care of. What about scrumhalf? The back-up to Du Preez is another veteran in Ruan du Preez who is as dependable as he is unexciting. The 31-year-old has been based in Northern Ireland at Ulster for the last five years and has the advantage of knowing the conditions in England better than most.
The third-choice No 9 probably offers more options and it is pity that Rudy Paige did not get opportunities in the Rugby Championship. He was a controversial selection ahead of Cobus Reinach but on Super Rugby form, his selection was warranted.
By Mike Greenaway
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