Cape Town – Whether all them crack the final, 31-strong RWC 2015 squad remains to be seen, but a pleasing aspect of South Africa’s current stocks at fullback is the wide range of versatile players who could serve the berth with some comfort.
Coach Heyneke Meyer will have the luxury of nailing down one or two preferred specialists in the position, while knowing that other players likely to be on the plane to England could fit the No 15 role near-seamlessly in an emergency.
It will come as a surprise if he suddenly veers away from talismanic Willie le Roux, who has amassed 28 Bok caps (the vast majority at fullback) during Meyer’s tenure and is recovering from an ankle injury sustained in the shock defeat against Argentina in Durban on August 8, as his first choice.
Even in that unpalatable maiden loss to those foes, Le Roux was at the fulcrum of much of the Boks’ attacking play, including dotting one of the three tries himself after a blistering dash.
He gives South Africa a welcome dose of unpredictability, although he can be guilty of slightly daft option-taking at times and there are always concerns about his stoutness on defence.
Probably the biggest threat Le Roux faces over his presence in the side - he could also be deployed at wing - is truly inclement weather for any key Bok fixtures at the autumnal tournament, which might persuade Meyer to look for a less “flash” type of customer at the back.
The best second option, seemingly, at No 15 is Pat Lambie, although that could depend on whether he is now deemed the top man at flyhalf, ahead of Handre Pollard. The baby-faced footballer has previously played with some distinction for the Boks at fullback, including in seven starts in the berth.
If Meyer is much more set on the idea of Lambie as a pivot, then that greatly enhances the chances of northern hemisphere-based Zane Kirchner, who brings a reputation based way more strongly on the safe than the spectacular, earning a RWC ticket.
Kirchner was dependable in his first start at No 15 in almost two years in the Boks’ last game, that overdue, revenge triumph over the Pumas in Buenos Aires.
Yet his presence in the RWC squad is no fait accompli, given that a certain Frans Steyn, a World Cup winner in 2007, still lurks in the greater Bok training squad presently based in Durban; he was due back in their ranks late this week after time off over a family bereavement.
Some critics remain adamant that the brawny customer’s best spot - though he is familiar to plenty in an international backline – is at fifteen, especially given his physicality and that monster boot of his. If Steyn goes to the World Cup, I’d expect Kirchner not to.
Meyer may go lean on specialist fullbacks if he believes that emerging outside centre Jesse Kriel offers realistic standby credentials in the position - after all, that was where he first cranked up his Test claims earlier this year for the Bulls in Super Rugby, where he was not far off the standout Israel Folau for attacking metres made from the rear of the park.
Throw in the fact that one of the coach’s staple scrumhalves, Ruan Pienaar who may find himself only second favourite at No 9 if veteran game-manager Fourie du Preez finally wrestles off his niggles - offers versatile options, and fullback is clearly not a slot that should give Meyer or many supporters sleepless nights in the lead-up to the World Cup.
Pienaar is probably only a “last resort” (or mid-game crisis) sort of possibility at the back, but keep in mind that he has graced the position at least six times for the Boks down the years, either as a starter or substitute, and has marvellous stepping and swerving skills sometimes a bit wasted closer to heavy traffic.
Boks’ No 15 depth rating ahead of RWC 2015: 7.5/10
*Fullbacks in last RWC squad (2011): Steyn, Lambie and Gio Aplon - the last-named player got a bit of pool-stage game-time at wing, but otherwise Frans Steyn began the tournament at No 15, then swiftly shifted to midfield ahead of personal injury setback, with Lambie the custodian of the last line of defence for the rest of the Boks’ presence at the event, when they were eliminated 11-9 by Australia in a controversial quarter-final.
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