Cape Town – You
sometimes have to feel that extra bit for Faf de Klerk.
He is traditionally so central to the Springbok game-plan that if the ebullient little scrumhalf strays even slightly off kilter in execution, it is especially noticeable and makes him the subject of tangible ire among Bok supporters, whether in stadiums or those watching from living rooms or rowdy watering holes where the language can get fruity.
De Klerk, of course, is the key vehicle for implementing the national team’s tactical kicking … and particularly the much-discussed “box-kick” propensity.
The policy arouses strong emotions, given the brutally fine line between success and failure in accuracy terms.
A deft, contestable kick that is won back can be like manna from heaven in creating the desired, momentary “chaos” in a doggedly stout, structured opposition defence, whereas one that is either under-powered or overcooked runs the risk of simply being regarded as a needless frittering away of hard-won possession -- perhaps a chance for the enemy, instead, to spark a dangerous counter-raid and only leave egg on the proverbial face.
The 2019 Boks have many pleasing strings to their bow, but creating significant levels of try-scoring chances from structured play is not one of them.
Just how much of that is down to the kick preference so often in situations that might favour ball-in-hand raids, or a lack of true conviction and confidence in shifting the ball down the backline, is debatable – the former perhaps influencing/inhibiting the latter?
It is also why De Klerk comes so burningly under the spotlight for his game management.
While no doubt “under orders” to a strong degree, his reputation at international level is far less to be an old-fashioned, swift provider of the ball to a back division than it is to spearhead an altogether more conservative strategy … you just have this image of the former Lions star as a “head-down” rather than head-up, dive-passing type of No 9 in a Bok jersey.
Even if he isn’t going to fling the ball out especially routinely, wouldn’t it be nice to see him make use of, say, the personal snipe a little more? With his nippiness and especially low centre of gravity at 1.70m (no Conor Murray, or Joost van der Westhuizen) he has shown before that he can be mightily effective in that capacity.
But with the Boks seemingly so earmarked – unless coach Rassie Erasmus has some red herrings in store -- for a forward-propelled, predominantly unadventurous game-plan against the contrastingly daring, fleet-footed Japanese in Sunday’s World Cup quarter-final in Tokyo (12:15 SA time), expect De Klerk to be right at the fulcrum of the favourites’ approach to it.
If his aerial kicks are pinpoint and the Boks keep winning them back, it should, admittedly, go quite a long way to ensuring a major, decisive foothold on the contest … possibly even allowing them the liberty of a more expansive approach as the tussle advances, which would also be when someone like reserve “scrummie” Herschel Jantjies potentially comes right into his own.
But if the Boks are toppled against the odds, and the SA formula comes under sharp (and pretty certainly angry) post-game scrutiny, you would also expect that the customary “Faf way” of doing things will not escape that debate.
The Sale Sharks man – his overall tenacity hardly in doubt, especially as he can be a fine “rescuing” defender in hairy situations – will be playing his own first knockout match at a World Cup, only having debuted in green and gold several months after completion of the 2015 tournament.
But he will be earning a 28th cap on Sunday, having been the unashamed first choice of Erasmus – and mostly during predecessor Allister Coetzee’s tenure, too – for key matches both this year and last, so he can hardly be deemed inexperienced.
De Klerk has not yet wowed at RWC 2019, having been quite considerably below his best in both the defeat to New Zealand (23-13) and victory over Italy (49-3) as the starting No 9.
On the brighter side, he played very decently in the 41-7 triumph over the Japanese just ahead of the World Cup in Saitama, where he produced a nice break to tee up a Cheslin Kolbe try, kicked effectively for the most part and also got up fast on defence a few times to thwart the home team’s desired attacking fluidity.
But a third successive off-colour showing within the major event itself will only increase the already well-subscribed clamour for a change to either Jantjies or Cobus Reinach as “numero uno” in the Bok scrumhalf pecking order.
Whether you are partial to him or not, De Klerk does seem to walk a tightrope a lot of the time …
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