Who should play at 13 for Boks?

Date published: July 2 2015

With the start of the RWC around the corner, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer appears to be undecided on his first-choice outside centre.

The Bok mentor is facing a conundrum which has been building for some time now and judging from the recent 49-man preliminary squad, he still has a long way to go before he makes up his mind.

Of that payers named for the Rugby Championship Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie, Jan Serfontein, Damian de Allende and JP Pietersen have played at outside centre for the Boks at Test level since Meyer's coaching tenure started in 2012. And of the players who didn't make the cut, Juan de Jongh, JJ Engelbrecht and Jaco Taute have also worn the green and gold number 13 jersey.

That's eight players in three and a half seasons and don't be surprised if that number grows because the uncapped Lionel Mapoe, who was one of the better number 13s during the recent Super Rugby tournament, is also in Meyer's preliminary group. Serfontein and Mapoe are currently recovering from injuries and only likely to return to action during the Rugby Championship, while it's safe to say that Pietersen is viewed primarily as a wing.

The return of 72-Test veteran Fourie is a clear sign that Meyer is undecided and the 32-year-old's selection must be viewed as desperate one.

The Japan-based midfielder recently reversed his decision to retire from Test rugby – for the second time – but is set to miss the Boks' opening encounters of 2015 against a World XV at Newlands on July 11 and possibly against the Wallabies in Brisbane the following weekend as he arrived from Japan in poor shape and is currently on the Boks' team doctor Craig Roberts' conditioning list.

Fourie first announced his retirement from the international arena before the start of the 2012 Test season but returned on the Boks' end-of-year tour in 2013 – in a similar condition – and didn't reach the heights which made him South Africa's preferred choice in the number 13 jersey at the 2007 and 2011 World Cups.

He suffered an injury setback in 2014 and announced his Test retirement again because he doubted his ability to play at the highest level.

It is understood, however, that Springbok coach Meyer was courting Fourie to make another comeback and eventually succeeded in doing so.

Of the other outside centres previously used by Meyer, but who weren't selected in his latest squad, Taute only returned to action from injury during the latter part of the Stormers' 2015 Super Rugby campaign while De Jongh's omission raised more than a few eyebrows – especially in Cape Town – as Meyer is yet to give him an extended run at Test level.

When the 27-year-old Stormers midfielder burst on to the scene he was like a breathe of fresh air as he shone on attack and defence but I'm sure he'll be the first to admit that he didn't have his best season in 2015.

His ability to beat defenders in one-on-one situations is his greatest strength but playing in a Stormers backline devoid of attacking creativity meant he seldom found the ball in space.

Meyer initially appeared to rate De Jongh highly and played him at outside centre on the Boks' 2012 end-of-year tour but has not used him at all over the past two seasons.

The Stormers man's critics often refer to his lack of size as his biggest weakness and this has been pointed out as the reason for him missing out on the 2013 and 2014 end-of-year tours where they usually play on heavy fields.

This will not be the case at the World Cup, however, as the Boks' pool matches will be on football fields and although he might not be the first-choice outside centre De Jongh's Test experience could make him a valuable squad member to fall back on in case of an emergency at the World Cup.

So, who should be the Boks' first-choice number 13 at the World Cup if all the players are fit?

My vote goes to the incumbent captain Jean de Villiers, who could return to action when the Boks face the World XV in less than two weeks.

I'd prefer the 34-year-old at outside centre with either Frans Steyn or De Allende – who was arguably South Africa's best player during Super Rugby – on his inside in the number 12 jersey.

De Villiers prefers playing at inside centre but is no stranger to the number 13 position and has done well there in the past for the Stormers and South Africa, and should be able to do that again at the global showpiece later this year.

by David Skippers