While the debate rages on about who should play fly half for the Springboks against Australia on Saturday, another question should be asked. Do South Africans overexaggerate the importance of the man in the number 10 jersey?
The way Bok incumbent Elton Jantjies has exclusively been blamed for the last three defeats suggests the rugby public almost honestly believes if he starts playing well, the team’s travails will be a thing of the past.
But, in a team of 15, how much of that is the result of years of labouring under the misapprehension that the stand-off isn’t just another important decision-maker, but a man in desperate need of a saviour complex?
“It’s a good discussion to have,” says former Lions and All Blacks coach John Mitchell. “Maybe it’s a legacy from the Naas [Botha] and Gerald Bosch days, when they kicked everything. Maybe the fact that your fly halves won a lot of games in the past hasn’t helped.”
Ironically, New Zealanders may also be to blame for South Africa’s obsession with fly half: in the 24 years since readmission, the All Blacks have had Grant Fox, Andrew Mehrtens, Carlos Spencer, Dan Carter and now Beauden Barrett, all iconic figures, turn out at stand-off.
What maybe goes unnoticed is that New Zealanders are less concerned about positions than they are about players being able to execute their core skills well.
So it might look like they’ve bottled the secret to producing great fly halves when those players are simply that good because there are basic non-negotiables when it comes to the tools they need to be able to play in their positions.
“At the end of the day, the modern game revolves around linkage,” Mitchell explains. “In New Zealand, a fly half is seen as a player who is key in the linkages. It’s important that he is on form and is confident, but he is just another key player.”
Joel Stransky, who with Henry Honiball is probably one of only two Bok fly halves who can claim greatness post-isolation, predictably disagrees with the idea that fly half is just another position in a team.
“I don’t think there is too much emphasis [on fly half],” says the man who kicked that drop-goal. “If you look at other teams in the world, especially the good teams, you see how good their 10s are. If you look at how good Barrett is, [Aaron] Cruden after him and [Lima] Sopoaga after him, fly halves are still a key part of the team.
“When a flank or prop make decisions, nobody really sees it. With fly halves, everybody does. It’s just the nature of the game that the 10 position is vital.”
Both agree Jantjies isn’t the only one to blame for the Boks’ woes.
“Elton is not playing well,” says Stransky. “He’s struggled to step up, has had enough opportunities and has made mistakes he shouldn’t make at this level. That said, [scrum half] Faf [de Klerk] isn’t playing well either.
“Much as there is a lot of focus on Jantjies, you have to look at the circumstances around him, and they are difficult ones. The problem for them [Jantjies and De Klerk] is when they turn to their coaching staff for help, they’ve got less experience than they do. Allister Coetzee is a good coach, but he has inherited raw and inexperienced assistants.”
Asked why Jantjies, who played some of his best rugby for him, wasn’t playing well, Mitchell said: “He needs a little bit of adjustment in terms of his depth and defensive attitude, but he mustn’t put away his attacking kicking. To play what’s in front of him, he’s only as good as the communication from the players outside him.
“You have to have good conversations with him and create an environment in training where he’s learning by putting him in situations that are likely to happen at the weekend. At the moment, it doesn’t look like it’s happening and he looks like he’s a little confused.”