Rugby Championship

Boks are moving in circles at flyhalf

2018-09-11 14:01
Handre Pollard (Getty)

Cape Town – So Rassie Erasmus will “probably go with” Handre Pollard as Springbok flyhalf in Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash with runaway world champions New Zealand in Wellington.

It wouldn’t be the worst move the head coach could make, of course, even as debate will continue to rage over whether Elton Jantjies warrants retention after the defeat to Australia.

One thing about Pollard that will not have escaped Erasmus’s sharp rugby mind - yes, it remains that, despite recent Bok results shakiness - is Pollard’s record of occasionally producing his best rugby against the All Blacks.

His place-kicking has been more erratic than the incumbent pivot’s of late, but what you do get from Pollard is a greater willingness to operate outside of the pocket.

For the record, the left-footed Jantjies wasn’t one of the worst Boks in Brisbane … even if I must have been blinking when Jantjies did some of the “brilliant” things Erasmus claims he did at Suncorp Stadium.

He still looked a fairly stilted, unassertive feature, to me, and may only have been hailed by some observers because he largely managed to cut out the all too glaring error-rate (though less so off the tee than Pollard) that had been a feature of several prior appearances by him in green and gold.

But even as the 2018 ping-pong between Jantjies and Pollard continues - the latter got quarter of an hour off the bench against the Wallabies without imposing himself markedly - I feel it is fair to say a broad perception remains that neither has truly grabbed games by the scruff of the neck in the up-and-down Test season so far.

In short, the berth has looked too obviously in fallible hands, whichever of the duo has been favoured, from the third Test against England at Newlands back in June and onward through three more internationals.

You might wish throw in another pretty high-stakes match, too: the Super Rugby final between the Crusaders and Lions, where Jantjies again failed to look convincing on a big day.

Against that backdrop, allow me to ask something with the proverbial tears in my eyes: wouldn’t the Brisbane Test have been an ideal opportunity to break away from the labouring (though undoubtedly more experienced) Jantjies-Pollard firm and blood Damian Willemse as starter in the No 10 channel?

Let’s face it, with the shares of the other two so clearly at a lowish point, could he really have dropped standards even lower in the key position?

Pressure on him to magically solve problems would have been less intense, considering flaky evidence from the Bok flyhalf play in several prior Test matches. 

Just an average showing by the 20-year-old attack-minded wunderkind would have been pretty close to “progress” and served up a tantalising, fresh, proper additional option in the slot … yes, perhaps even enough to justify his retention for the demanding date against the All Blacks this weekend.

While I don’t think there should be any question of Willemse being tossed to the wolves in Wellington now - it seems highly unlikely to happen anyway when Erasmus reveals his selection hand on Thursday - it would have looked a lot less risky had he been given an opportunity in Brisbane and prospered (or something close to that) there.

Who can say with great conviction that he wouldn’t have?

Pollard, after all, made his own Test debut at Willemse’s current age and quickly started producing for then-coach Heyneke Meyer some of his own best rugby yet witnessed for the national cause; he has generally looked a less cutting-edge character, in my view, since that freak Bulls training-ground knee ligament injury in early 2016.

Bear in mind also that Willemse was still an especially callow 18-year-old when he first appeared at Super Rugby level for the Stormers - and didn’t look overawed - so it is not as though he is a complete first-class rugby novice.

He has also sampled a morsel of Test combat already, with last-quarter appearances against Argentina in both Durban and Mendoza.

He has an enormous range of skills, including that quite bamboozling sidestep, is comfortable playing either from deep or much shallower, and there’s certainly little in his body language or physique to suggest he’d lamentably crumble if asked to start for South Africa, whether it be at fullback or flyhalf.

As things stand, the Boks also have a dangerous overload of left-footers in important tactical kicking berths: Jantjies at pivot, Faf de Klerk at scrumhalf and with Willie le Roux the fullback.

My fear is that Willemse remains reasonably peripheral on match days over the next few weeks, and possibly only starts somewhere down the drag in a situation where the Boks have genuinely become “desperate”.

And what if - something I wouldn’t write off, that’s for sure - he quickly excels personally?

Then we will quite feasibly be in an environment where, with Tests to the 2019 World Cup possibly down to a single-figure tally, the big lament becomes “damn, if only we’d shown greater confidence in Damian earlier”.

Meanwhile, regrettably, only revolving mediocrity seems to bloom at Bok flyhalf.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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Saturday, 29 September 2018
South Africa v Australia, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium 17:05
Sunday, 30 September 2018
Argentina v New Zealand, Estadio Jose Amalfitani 00:40
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