Cape Town - It is difficult to believe diminutive Cheetahs
playmaker Robert Ebersohn would encounter significant disapproval from anywhere
in the country if he was rewarded with maiden selection for the Springbok
starting XV to play Italy in Durban on June 8.
The unexpectedly high-flying Free Staters, after all, have
increasingly become the “next favourite team” of many people from outside that
province, due in no small way to the liberated brand of Super Rugby they’ve
been playing – allied to the fact that much of their former defensive naivety
has been quite emphatically banished.
Going into their key, appealing clash with the SA
conference-leading Bulls in Bloemfontein on Saturday (19:10), the fourth-placed
overall Cheetahs had registered 32 tries in the 2013 competition, more than
anyone else from our shores (the Bulls had crossed the chalk 29 times).
GALLERY: Boks train in Durban
They had leaked 25, only one more than the side from
Pretoria, and were going to have to implode fairly violently in the remaining
weeks of ordinary season if they were to emulate the situation last year where
they showed a “minus 12” figure in terms of the tries-for-and-against stats,
including letting in an undesirable 47.
So the Cheetahs must be doing something right this season,
and I believe Ebersohn, starting regularly at inside centre although his earlier
station had always tended to be at No 13, has never been far from the heart of
Perhaps rightfully at first, some pundits feared the Grey College
product might not have quite the physical dimensions (1.80m and 89kg) to be a
really dominant character closer to the traffic, but that has been shown to be
a wholly unnecessary concern.
He has brought a combination of flair, composure, direction
and intelligence to the demanding backline channel, and keep in mind that that
has been despite the major inconvenience for the franchise of seeing the
intended ally at his left shoulder, first-choice flyhalf Johan Goosen, succumb
to a second long-term injury setback in quick succession.
Of course it is unclear whether Bok coach Heyneke Meyer
does, indeed, plan to feature the fast maturing 24-year-old alongside his
staple captain from 2012, the currently overplayed but nevertheless amazingly still
vibrant Jean de Villiers, in midfield against the Italians.
Ebersohn has at least been part of his extended training
group, which offers some hope that he will get his first-time opportunity
during the June Test window.
That chance has only mushroomed with various cases of
already-known absenteeism or fitness doubt among strong candidates for centre
Frans Steyn, who initially operated at No 12 last season
with De Villiers further out, is sidelined, the skipper’s partner at the
Stormers, Juan de Jongh, is touch and go with a finger fracture, and the
utility claims of JP Pietersen and Jaco Taute – although both are more familiar
with back-three slots – also cannot be considered at present.
There are still the claims of long-legged Bulls No 13 JJ
Engelbrecht to consider; he seemed to fall back in the pecking order a bit
towards the end of last season, but has been suitably forceful anew in Super
Rugby and also largely put paid to fears of some defensive frailty.
It is intriguing, too, that wunderkind Jan Serfontein has
been pulled out of the SA Under-20 side to defend their IRB Junior World
Championship title – he was so influential in securing it last year – in France
This suggests he is closer than some may think to active
duty for the senior South Africa side, although a gut feel is that he may be
blooded as a substitute initially to assess his mettle.
Serfontein would be a bold choice to start against Italy;
Ebersohn would be a sensible one, and certainly one based indisputably around
consistently sound form in Super Rugby 2013.
I feel strongly that a start-out pairing of De Villiers and
Ebersohn, regardless of which way around they operate in the middle of the park
– and maybe they are usefully interchangeable? – would not let the country down
at all during this initial phase of the Test season.
They might also offer a whole lot more than just stability
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing