Rugby Championship

Boks desperate for No 9 spark

2014-09-08 13:33
Ruan Pienaar (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Get better as quickly as possible, Fourie du Preez!

That should be the earnest, continued wish of all astute Springbok enthusiasts ... even given the knowledge that his return to fitness after an ankle operation for national team purposes probably only comes in time for next year’s roster.

But with 2015 hardly unimportant as it signals the advent of another World Cup, in the United Kingdom, that’s still not the worst scenario to mull over.

Frankly, the more often the proven genius and much-needed game management of Du Preez is not available to the Boks, the more prone they seem to be becoming to experiencing critical breakdowns of efficiency and X-factor in the key scrumhalf slot.

It happened again in Perth on Saturday, where South Africa’s sterility both at No 9 and to a lesser extent flyhalf, in the shape of Morne Steyn, hardly aided the cause in the damaging, controversial 24-23 Castle Rugby Championship defeat to Australia.

Elsewhere on the park, a host of Bok players produced either forceful or at least acceptably decent performances and it is widely acknowledged - even among some Aussie pundits and observers - that the visitors ought to have done enough to win after building up a nine-point cushion and looking in control until a sequence of late events, including the bewildering yellow card for caps centurion Bryan Habana, conspired against them.

Admittedly, the Boks were also their own worst enemies for botching this one, and are now under enormous pressure to knock over the mighty All Blacks in their own Wellington den this Saturday (09:35 SA time) if the 2014 tournament isn’t to be turned into simply another one-horse race.

Wholesale changes - despite the inevitable, emotion-laden public spittle that inevitably follows a loss - are not justifiable: instability and heightened unfamiliarity of combinations are the last thing the underdogs need for their tough quest in the Cake Tin.

Yes, Steyn’s failure to find touch from a manna-from-heaven, relieving penalty in the dying stages will long be remembered as a massive contributor to the Wallaby rally for a fortunate triumph, but I also made the point on Saturday that ahead of that gremlin, the seasoned if rather predictable pivot hadn’t performed too poorly.

You have to fancy that coach Heyneke Meyer will forgive the expensive boo-boo and stick with Steyn against New Zealand, figuring that his experience and kicking ability both at the posts and out of hand - supplemented by a very necessary, particularly thunderous effort from the Bok pack - is the likeliest passport to an upset in what look like being soggy conditions once again.

But is a scrumhalf shake-up required to pep up the broader “nine and ten” dynamic this weekend, perhaps infusing a welcome mystery element to a partnership that seems no more than bland and workmanlike at present?

It is desperately tempting to believe so, after Pienaar struggled yet again to truly impose himself on the Perth fixture - in damp, Ulster-like conditions that are supposedly his forte.

Of course it is a subjective exercise but a mounting common denominator in Bok Tests minus the services of the ever-shrewd, crisp-passing Du Preez is a low score for the scrumhalf (whether Pienaar or anyone else) out of 10 on the Sport24 performance chart.

It was no different at Patersons Stadium where we gave Pienaar the lowest ranking of the entire Bok side (4.5), a downgrading even of the five dished out to him in the nerve-jangling Salta clash with Argentina a fortnight earlier.

In mitigation, there are times when you can feel quite sorry for scoring him so low, as seldom does a game go by where he doesn’t contribute at least some useful element now and then, and it can come to light more on second viewing of a particular match.

For instance, just how thankless would it have been for any scrumhalf operating behind that violently retreating Bok scrum in Argentina?

In Perth, too, Pienaar was an alert mopping-up element on defence at times when peril possibly stared the Boks in the face ... although the old bogey of the player just looking too infuriatingly sluggish and unassertive at his core trade certainly resurfaced as well.

The tricky question facing Meyer, if he acknowledges a need for a shake-up, is which of Francois Hougaard or Cobus Reinach to install in Pienaar’s place; the former is presumably next in the intended pecking order as he was the substitute against the Wallabies.

But Hougaard has had his own Test-level ghosts, including a penchant for struggling with his box and clearance kicks, making him vulnerable to charge-down, whilst Reinach is a mercurial, effervescent character and nippy athlete but can go a bit “headless chicken” strategically.  

Perhaps, though, this is one occasion where you simply must make a change for the very sake of it, in the desperate hope that it makes a difference?

The No 9 jersey is a weakness for the Springboks right now, and there don’t seem any guaranteed, immediate-fix solutions on that front.

But let’s not forget that next year it should, all going well on the Du Preez recovery front, suddenly veer toward an area of strength once more.

Yes, there is mounting debate about the wisdom of Meyer putting his faith in more than a handful of perceived “old crocks”, with decidedly mixed success of late.

But the one veteran to have convincingly reminded - prior to his latest injury setback - that class is permanent has been the 32-year-old former Bulls favourite.

Does Du Preez have another World Cup in him?

Fuelled by what we’ve seen of others in the No 9 shirt for the Boks, and even acknowledging the passing of his peak ... oh, you bet he does.

It is just a shame he can’t gallop in on his horse to Wellington.  

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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