Some of the highlights of this year’s three-Test series between South Africa and France were the stellar performances from Jan Serfontein in midfield. The Springbok centre endured an injury-plagued 2016, and Damien de Allende’s failure to take the chances afforded to him in the 12 jersey opened the door for Serfontein to make it his own. It must be taken into account that France were at the end of a long season, only showing intermittent glimpses of their true quality, but Serfontein still outplayed Gaël Fickou, an established international who doesn’t often get eclipsed.
Having been touted as a future mainstay of senior Test sides after starring for the Baby Boks at the Junior World Championship in 2012, Serfontein won his first senior cap off the bench against Italy in June 2013. Since then, he has made 29 appearances for his country at the top level, playing 13 of those games at outside centre to accommodate either former South Africa captain Jean de Villiers or the above-mentioned de Allende at inside centre.
Playing at 13 worked for Serfontein because of his vision, pace, ability to change direction quickly, as well as his quality distribution, but the move back to 12 has gotten the best out of him, as it has allowed him to put his bruising physicality to better use closer to the ruck. He dominated French players in contact both sides of the ball in June, winning collisions against forwards and backs alike to shift the momentum in his team’s favour. In the below example, he put in a big hit on Mohamed Boughanmi (6’4½”/19st, 12lb) and then followed it up by driving the replacement prop back in the tackle:
Again, in the third Test, we saw Serfontein’s competitiveness in the tackle to the fore against another one of the biggest forwards in the French pack, Romain Taofifénua (6’6½”/20st, 4lb):
In this case, he and Jesse Kriel complete a strong double-tackle on Taofifénua, but Serfontein wasn’t content to put in a big first-up hit; he followed it up by ripping the ball from the second rower’s grasp.
Serfontein was also immensely physical with ball in hand, requiring at least two tacklers to put him to ground whenever he chose to charge into contact:
He didn’t make huge yards after the tackle in either of the above examples, but he did suck in defenders and keep his team on the front foot for the next phase.
….And The Sword
It wasn’t just brute force that Serfontein excelled at against the French. His time on the sidelines has seen him shed a few kilos without losing any of his natural physicality, and even though there is less room to manouevre at 12 than there is at 13, he used footwork, raw pace and intelligent running lines to carve the French defence open, and to finish off gilt-edged opportunities that his teammates had created:
Being able to bash holes in or slice through a defence is vital for any centre, but complementing those attributes with the wherewithal and skill levels to put others into space when it’s a better choice than taking on the defence himself is what makes Serfontein stand out. In the below instance, South Africa had France on the back foot, and Serfontein chose to shift the ball on to Jesse Kriel instead of having a cut himself, as his centre partner had more room to take advantage of due to the French defence having not realigned properly in the 15-metre channel:
Another good example of Serfontein’s decision-making and skill levels came in the third France Test, when the Springboks opted for a switch-back move off first-phase from a lineout between Francois Hougaard and Serfontein to narrow up the French midfield:
It was a pre-planned move and Serfontein was likely under strict instruction to give the pass back to Houggard no matter what in order to exploit space further out, but many players in his position would have been tempted to barrel over tacklers and make a statement early on in a Test match. Serfontein had the awareness to recognise that his team were better served by getting the ball wider, and by throwing a superb pass at pace, he engineered an enormous gain for Jaco Kriel up the middle of the pitch, as opposed to a couple of hard yards for himself around the 10-12 channel.
On top of his exceptional running and passing, Serfontein has a solid, albeit seldom-used, kicking game when carrying or passing the ball aren’t the right options. In the third quarter of the first Test against France, the defence rushed up in his face, closing down the space that he had to work with. Rather than having a run and getting caught behind the gain line, or throwing a highly-pressurised pass to a support runner who was being lined up by an opposition tackler, Serfontein put in a strongly-weighted grubber kick in behind the onrushing French defence:
It was an excellent read and quick thinking on the part of the player, and the end result was a penalty try for South Africa and a yellow card for Brice Dulin for interfering with Courtnall Skosan off the ball.
Master Of All Trades
First-rate identification of space, slick passing and deft kicking aren’t traits you would normally associate with a big, gain line-busting 12, but when you compare him to his potential rivals, Serfontein would seem to be among the most well-rounded players named to participate in this year’s Rugby Championship.
Argentina are persisting with the gifted yet aging Juan Martín Hernández at 12 to act as a second five-eighth, New Zealand have struggled to find their ideal centre partnership, and Australia have to choose either the flawed magician Kurtley Beale or Reece Hodge, a classy player, but one who converted to 12 as recently as last year, and continues to alternate between midfield and the wing for his club. In terms of ticking all of the boxes that a coach looks for in a player, Allister Coetzee is in the enviable position of having a multi-talented player like Serfontein at his disposal.
Of course, there’s every chance he could choose Damien de Allende in his starting XV at Serfontein’s expense; some of his selections heretofore have beggared belief, but on the evidence of de Allende’s displays in 2016, his error count is too high, and Serfontein is a superior player to him in several areas, and should have done enough against an admittedly fatigued French side to guarantee that he starts in Port Elizabeth on August 19th.