Cape Town - So lynch me, if you feel you instantly must.
Michael Claassens’ last of eight Test caps came more than 10
years ago, when he got a token three late minutes off the bench in a 33-6
thumping from New Zealand in Christchurch.
There were strong mitigating circumstances to that result,
however: Jake White opted to field very much a Bok “second team”, led by lock
Johann Muller, as he kept slightly longer-term interests in mind and the
dirt-trackers didn’t disgrace for quite lengthy periods before the floodgates
opened just a bit.
Those interests, of course, were a certain RWC 2007 a few
weeks later ... where South Africa eventually hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup for a
Since that period, the now 34-year-old Claassens has spent
vast periods of his lengthy, ongoing and admirably dedicated first-class career
plying his trade in northern climes.
Between 2007 and 2013, he amassed as many as 164 appearances
for Bath in England, before also sampling the French Top 14 for Toulon, in a
period between 2013 and 2015.
Since then, the former Cheetahs stalwart has proved a shrewd
acquisition by the Sharks, where his street wisdom has both aided their cause
in Super Rugby and, more recently, a charge to already confirmed table-topping
status in the round-robin phase of this year’s Currie Cup.
The Sharks have played a fair bit of significantly
wet-weather rugby in Durban of late, a situation that brings Claassens very
comfortably into his own because of his rich knowledge of those conditions and
game-management qualities in them.
At just shy of 90kg, Claassens is also a terrier in physical
terms around the fringes, giving a dollop of the old Joost van der
Westhuizen-like hallmark on that score in the position.
Given the ongoing, rightful reservations among critics about
the calibre of the current scrumhalf resources for the Springboks, would it
really be such a crazy move to contemplate a presence for the player - yes, even
a whole decade on - among the (likely) three No 9s for the looming four-match
tour of the northern hemisphere, Claassens’ old stomping ground?
At worst, he would be a valuable mentor for the others in
drumming in the very specific requirements for duty on the expected heavier,
slower pitches of Europe, even if it isn’t necessarily raining bucket-loads in
some of the Tests the Boks will play.
Frankly, if the relative uncertainty surrounding the highly
specialist berth only continues for the Springboks, too, then Claassens
entering the starting picture for a make-or-break type of fixture on the
venture - or at least lurking handily on the bench anyway - wouldn’t be the
stuff of outright loopiness, by my book.
You had to feel a bit for first-choice incumbent Ross Cronje
in Saturday’s pulsating, desperately close match against the All Blacks at
Newlands, where he was seemingly only following orders - especially in the
first half - to hoist a flurry of box kicks, several of which were ineffectual
and only saw the visitors gather and roar menacingly onto counter-attack.
He made certain other errors, and some of his passing
doesn’t exactly fall into “bullet” category, either.
That said, there is still enough to like about the tenacious
Cronje amidst a fairly limited bunch in the post-Fourie du Preez era, and he
has played a few decent Tests this year - certainly been better than the
now-axed Francois Hougaard.
Nevertheless, I was at a radio station-hosted breakfast
immediately ahead of the Newlands crunch, featuring NZ halfback legend Justin
Marshall as one of the “couch” guests, and he submitted that Cronje needed “a
massive game ... must really step up” in the role if he was to command ongoing
rights to the Bok No 9 jersey.
The blond Lions man fell some way short of “massive”,
although he certainly deserves an ongoing Bok presence and still appears pretty
sure to get a tour ticket - as, I suspect, will eternally under-utilised Rudy
There are a few other home-based scrumhalves worthy of
consideration for the undertaking as anticipated “third element” for the berth,
but Claassens, if you are prepared to overlook his long-in-the-tooth drawback,
is right up there with them, and that educative role on a northern trek really
should not be disregarded.
On that basis, how about the credentials of a certain Ruan
Pienaar, just a year younger than Claassens at 33 and also a (now
Montpellier-based) Euro expert with plenty of knowledge to transfer?
Former Bok coach White recently reminded, after all, that
Pienaar was still “firing on all cylinders” in France and offered enormous
guidance possibilities “for the youngsters in a squad”.
The drawback with the 88-cap Bok stalwart is that he all but
quit international rugby almost exactly a year ago, saying “I think that’s
probably it” in Test terms for South Africa.
Mind you, he did only say probably.
Might Allister Coetzee yet be tempted by a relative old
crock among his scrumhalves?
I feel there’d be a certain method to that “madness” if it
comes about in the next few weeks.
It is not as though South Africa has an embarrassment of
more youthful present riches in the berth …
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