Rugby Championship

Boks set to ‘muscle up’ at 10, 12

2018-08-06 16:01
Handre Pollard (Getty)

Cape Town – Thou shalt not pass.

That looks increasingly like the message the Springboks will be issuing to their earliest foes at least - Argentina - in the 2018 Rugby Championship when it comes to the important, busy channels of flyhalf and inside centre.

READ: The Bok squad: Five burning questions ...

Unless there are some last-minute surprises by coach Rassie Erasmus, the Boks will be staffed there by the strapping presences of Handre Pollard (98kg, 1.88m) and, especially, one of the bigger No 12s on the global rugby circuit in the 110kg, 1.94m Andre Esterhuizen.

That should not only bolt the gate much of the time to opposition raids in those areas of the park, but also give South Africa a good prospect of go-forward from their own possession – certainly neither man is renowned for hiding in the pocket.

Pollard, of course, is the surer pick of the two: he is back as the clear-cut, premier No 10 in the country.

But the shape of the broad Championship squad revealed by Erasmus on Monday also does little to suggest that Esterhuizen isn’t about to earn a third start for his country; the Boks open their tournament account against the Pumas in Durban on Saturday week.

That is because he is the only specialist No 12 chosen; the other midfielders (Lukhanyo Am, Jesse Kriel and Lionel Mapoe) are all much more notable outside centres.

Erasmus said at his media briefing on Monday that Damian de Allende, the injured first-choice in the berth, is “not far away” and could even feature in Durban, but as he is not ready to feature in Bok build-up plans more immediately, Esterhuizen seems the strong front-runner for the job against Argentina.

The Sharks player, who has shown better discipline this year and an expanded ability to offload deftly out of the tackle, earned his first cap against Wales in Washington DC and was one of few new faces on that (losing) occasion to impress.

He then kicked his heels until the dead-rubber third Test against England on a foul day at Newlands, where conditions seemed tailor-made for his physical qualities but he didn’t quite come up to expectation in the 25-10 reverse.

A reprieve, however, appears imminent – and he might thrive alongside a brawnier, more direct flyhalf than Elton Jantjies, who occupied the slot just inside his (and was glaringly poor) in that Capetonian Test.

Apart from the outside chance of De Allende being fast-tracked back from the crocked list at short notice, switching Pollard to No 12 is another move that could at least be mulled over.

Like legendary New Zealander Dan Carter, he is well capable of doing the “second five-eighth” duty.

But it would also mean the Boks, under those circumstances, having to entrust No 10 to either of Jantjies – presumably not exactly oozing confidence after his forgettable Super Rugby final – or the novice, hitherto uncapped Damian Willemse.

Both scenarios would carry significant risks at this point, although Willemse, just 20, has a growing school of admirers for his refreshing array of skills; he is also no slouch in contact situations.

It would be a source of some comfort, if he did get the nod in a daring move, for Willemse to have Pollard – who would be earning his 30th cap at Kings Park – very nearby, and also able to assume command of roles like the place-kicking, given his considerably superior experience.

But Pollard and Esterhuizen in the 10-12 alliance is the smart-money choice in just under a fortnight.

If they are placed together, it would be their first significant hook-up since 2014, when both represented the Junior Boks at the then-IRB Junior World Championship.

In Pollard’s noteworthy third and final season for the Junior Boks (and as skipper), he had Esterhuizen as his inside centre and they were pipped 21-20 by Maro Itoje-led England in the final.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing



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