Rugby Championship

Boks: Faf has too much influence!

2018-10-01 12:56
Faf de Klerk
Faf de Klerk (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - What a tenacious little battler. What durable batteries he has, too.

It’s hard to quibble, in many respects, with Faf de Klerk’s current status as so clearly the Springboks’ first-choice scrumhalf.

That situation is admittedly made easier for him, of course, by the thinness of additional, proven resources in the important position.

But he also, almost undeniably, sweats blood for the cause and is an eternal, general livewire and potential game-breaker ... and true game-changers don’t simply grow on trees.

Head coach Rassie Erasmus has an extraordinary amount of faith in the Sale-based No 9, something evidenced by the massive amount of game-time he tends to command during Test matches in 2018.

It has become commonplace (certainly during the ongoing Rugby Championship) for the former Lions favourite to get through the full 80 minutes, depriving the dedicated scrumhalf substitute of any exposure in the berth.

This has pros and cons: the positive is that it must be a great confidence-booster for De Klerk; a strong sense that he is extremely valued.

Certainly in the famous triumph over the All Blacks in Wellington, I thought Erasmus warranted great kudos for keeping the starter on the park - despite his already monumental shift in pure energy terms - in the nerve-jangling closing minutes when the Boks had to defend for dear life and De Klerk was inspiringly influential, amazingly tireless.

He often is that at the tail-end of tight games: think back to how vital his presence was, as a raid-thwarter, when the fate of the whole home Test series against Ireland in 2016 hung precariously in the balance right into the final seconds of the third clash at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

But now for the down side of De Klerk’s omnipresence for the cause: for one thing, the alternative No 9s are, dangerously, barely getting a look-in; Embrose Papier again twiddled his thumbs from the bench in the victory over the Wallabies on Saturday and Ross Cronje and Ivan van Zyl have generally suffered the same fate.

Should De Klerk suddenly succumb to injury (luckily he has a good track record for steering clear of such mishaps), the Boks could be caught fairly raw in the berth.

But is De Klerk also too “empowered” as a strategic shot-caller for the current Boks?

I may well not be alone in having a sense that just too much of the play - especially when it comes to exits - comes off his bat, to borrow a cricketing analogy.

Indeed, you might almost argue that he is like the batsman who stubbornly doesn’t want to give up the strike, a bit to the detriment of his partner at the other end.

He is responsible for an awful lot of the relieving, supposedly contestable kicks, but at the weekend he continued a penchant for mistiming a few of them - remember that with Israel Folau and others to the fore, the Wallabies are absolute masters at monopolising aerial competition; it is ingrained in their footballing culture.

What that meant was that, all too often, the already territorially- and possession-challenged Boks had to scramble to rearrange their defence once more, as the visitors countered with zest.

There were times when you wished - not for the first time this season, either? - that in-form flyhalf Handre Pollard had been given more scope to relieve via raking touch-finders high into the stands, enabling a temporary breather and the chance for a decent Bok lineout (Eben Etzebeth on fire) to seriously challenge the Aussie throw-in, as they did often enough anyway.

Broadly speaking, De Klerk has a tendency to just take on a bit too much: he seems to get into fifth gear early in a game (and that’s not all bad, for sure) yet be reluctant to shift down from it at all.

As a result, he becomes prone to over-eagerness that sometimes proves costly and means he turns temporary liability, more than asset.

Certainly he probes the boundaries of on-side legality pretty consistently, and there are junctures in matches where you just know - despite tell-tale body language or even some early verbal warning from the referee - that De Klerk will transgress and concede a penalty because he just can’t help himself.

He has an agreeably speedy service on him, amply in evidence when he did spin the ball out in Port Elizabeth, and the Bok cause (their attack is evolving quite nicely, for instance) might look crucially less predictable, in some ways, if De Klerk spreads the tactical load more often to others around him, like his No 10.

The flyhalf is not called a playing “partner” to a scrumhalf for nothing, let’s face it.

Something to be considered, naturally, is whether De Klerk’s so massively central role is down to specific instruction from “upstairs”.

Whoever is responsible, my own fairly firm feeling is that the Boks could make life a little easier for themselves - even as they bask in a present two-from-two record against really major foes - by getting De Klerk to be just a little more of a conventional link and a smidgeon less of a noticeable, dedicated general ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

 

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