Captaincy no curse so far for South Africa halfback Du Preez

LONDON (AP) Fourie du Preez would enjoy the cut and thrust of leading South Africa even more at the Rugby World Cup if he could leave the captaincy duties on the pitch.

”It’s a week and a half, and so far I’ve enjoyed it, ” Du Preez said as the players were finalizing preparations for their last Pool B match against the United States on Wednesday. ”I don’t enjoy media conferences, I don’t enjoy big speeches, but when I get on the field I love it.”

It’s a good thing for the veteran scrumhalf, then, that he wasn’t in the hot seat after South Africa’s opening match having to explain how the two-time World Cup champions were beaten 34-32 by Japan on Sept. 19. The biggest upset in tournament history made headlines globally.

”After the match against Japan, we were under immense pressure, the worst I’ve ever experienced,” the 33-year-old du Preez said, ”and although the character of the team came through, we’re still under the same pressure.

”We knew we had to beat Samoa and Scotland. Now we’re facing the USA and if we don’t win, we’re on the plane home.”

Jean de Villiers was Springboks captain that day against Japan, but the injured center has since been ruled out of the tournament. Du Preez went on as a second-half substitute against Japan for Ruan Pienaar, but has started in both of South Africa’s wins since then – a 40-point thumping of Samoa and a 34-16 win over Scotland at Newcastle last weekend.

South Africa leads the group with 11 points and would seal top spot with a win over the Americans at the Olympic Stadium. Coach Heyneke Meyer is taking no chances, selecting a nearly full-strength starting XV and resting only veteran lock Victor Matfield, prop Jannie du Plessis and injured winger JP Pietersen. Backrower Schalk Burger is set to equal John Smit’s national record of 17 World Cup appearances.

”We know what will work for us on the field and tomorrow we simply have to take that up a notch,” Du Preez said. ”There is still a lot of desperation and hope, but our only focus for now is on the encounter against the USA.”

The South Africans won the only previous Rugby World Cup encounter between the countries 64-15 – in a pool match en route to the title in 2007.

The U.S. Eagles have taken a different approach, resting many regular starters to keep them fresh for their last pool match on Sunday against Japan – a team they’ve beaten every time they’ve met at the World Cup.

That leaves room for South Africa-born Niku Kruger to make his Rugby World Cup debut for the Eagles at scrumhalf, where he’ll be opposing one of the best in the business.

”I know he was born in Pretoria and his dad is a famous actor,” Du Preez, who made his test debut in 2004, said when asked what he knew about Kruger, the man he’ll be marking. ”It’s the first time; I’m looking forward to playing against him. It’ll be nice to speak a little bit of Afrikaans.”

Kruger said he’s long looked forward to playing a World Cup match for the land that gave him the opportunity.

”Obviously for me it’s going to be an opportunity that I’ve dreamt of for a very long time. It’s probably going to be pretty emotional at the same time,” Kruger said. ”It’s an opportunity to play against some guys that you know have made it big in the sport. It’s an opportunity to just go out there and enjoy myself.”

Kruger, who made his test debut as a replacement for the Eagles against Canada in August, will start inside of flyhalf Shalom Suniula, who will line up on the inside of his brother, Andrew Suniula.

”That’s something that doesn’t come around very often so it’s a moment I’ll definitely relish; not only playing against the Springboks but to lace up next to him,” Shalom Suniula said of the sibling combination. ”It’s a memory that’ll last forever.”