Jan Serfontein ready to square up to Jared Payne
21-year-old Springbok is one of several young players brought in by coach Meyer
Jan Serfontein: The South African centre will win his 17th international cap when he lines out against Ireland on Saturday. photograph: James Crombie/Inpho.
The Springbok outside centre politely stutters out some words. “Yeah . . . ah . . . the focus has been on us the last couple of weeks so we haven’t really given too much attention to the opposition yet . . . ”
That’s sounds like a definite “no I haven’t heard of either of them”. And why would the 21-year-old know the Ulster and Connacht centres? Payne earns his first cap, Henshaw his fourth, Serfontein his 17th for the Springboks.
During the recent Rugby Championship Oakley sunglasses were awarded for the best defensive performance. After South Africa’s game against Australia in Perth three rounds in and with three to play, Serfontein had collected three sets.
He made 24 hits against the All Blacks and in their game against Australia, according to said South African defensive coach John McFarland,South Africa tackled 100 times, Serfontein making 21 of those.
“It is not just the number of tackles, but the quality of tackles he is putting in,” says McFarland. “He is not just stopping opposition players, but knocking them back. It’s been impressive.”
Serfontein and Joe Schmidt have a common view on playing in the centre. It’s not that difficult to switch between the two, which belies decades of talk about natural inside and outside players as well as Brian O’Driscoll’s trumpeted defensive ability in the wider channel.
Henshaw will definitely feel the former IRB Junior Player of the Year’s tackling but there’s also an offensive side to his game ready to break out.
“It’s not too big of an adjustment,” he says. “Myself and Jean switch now and then in defence but it’s just one channel. In general play it’s not really a factor so it’s not really been such a big adjustment.”
With 20-year-old, 190cm (6ft 3in) Handre Pollard starting at outhalf, youth studs the Springbok line. But caution is needed as Serfontein also has an All Black scalp in his pocket, which has eluded Irish players. The recent win was also his biggest moment in the sport.
“Definitely beating the All Blacks at Ellis Park last month, that stands out for me. Things were going well at the start of the game and in the end it looked like we were letting it slip,” he says almost describing Ireland’s unravelling last year.
“But when we got that penalty and Pat [Lambie] put it over. We had to defend for the two minutes. It was nerve-wracking but when the final whistle went we were very, very happy.”
A Babybok doing shifts with the seniors, Serfontein along with a sprinkling of other younger players is coach Heyneke Meyer’s vision for the World Cup, a game divorcing itself from the traditional brawn and embracing creativity and some risk .
“People look at Handre [Pollard] at 10 and he is only 20 but a lot of people don’t realise that Jan is only 21,” said Meyer this week.” So to have a 10 and a 12 who are 20 and 21 against the top teams in the world, for me it’s unheard of.
“The experience they are going to get from this tour . . . and if we can keep more or less the same backline, I really want to improve our attacking play. So to have youngsters like that is really, really great for the future.”
Serfontein’s other asset is the 100-plus caps lining out beside him in De Villiers, one Jared Payne doesn’t have. But Schmidt, like Meyer, shows he’s unafraid of risk taking. In the Springbok 13, it has paid in spades for South Africa.
A benchmark game for the centres the Irish coach called it yesterday. One thing is certain. Afterwards Serfontein will know the names of Payne and Henshaw.