Boks at 9 and 10: It’s wide open

2018-04-10 13:31
Robert du Preez (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Just how helpful has Super Rugby 2018 been so far to Rassie Erasmus in his quest to resolve the big Springbok uncertainty at critical, game-managing Nos 9 and 10?

Answer: not a whole heap.

In short, the new Bok mastermind will have a healthy head-scratcher in his choice at flyhalf, given the appealing closeness and quality of the duel there across the four South African franchises, but an altogether cloudier picture when it comes to scrumhalf - an enduring headache since maestro Fourie du Preez sauntered off into the sunset after RWC 2015.

And in combined terms, it may be a justifiable contention that the pairing has seldom looked so uncertain and “up for grabs” as it does right now at Bok level.

A reminder of the incumbents, for what it may be worth, from the dying embers of the Allister Coetzee head-coach tenure: Handre Pollard at pivot and Ross Cronje his partner a little closer to the coalface.

They were the duo who ran out for the 2017 season-closer against Wales in Cardiff, a 24-22 reverse to a significantly under-strength home side which really helped to bury Coetzee after his notably unproductive two years in charge.

In the 71st minute, the substitutes in those slots, Elton Jantjies and Louis Schreuder respectively, got a token late gallop from “Toetie” after neither starter had set the Principality Stadium alight.

But what does the situation look like after roughly the halfway stage of Super Rugby ordinary season in those spots for South Africa (preparing to host England in three Tests during June)?

Let’s begin with flyhalf.

Pollard, for the rebuilding and sometimes genuinely resurgent-looking Bulls, has been good – rather than exceptional – thus far, generally continuing on his gradual upward curve in confidence and assertiveness since that major cruciate ligament setback in pre-season of 2016 which wiped out his calendar year then.

At times, he has looked once again like the wunderkind of the SA under-20 cause, and who so excelled in early Bok call-ups during Heyneke Meyer’s frankly under-rated period as green-and-gold coach.

But in their own ways, every other of the major flyhalves across the SA scene in this season’s Super Rugby have stuck their hands up very strongly at varying times, suggesting several parallel possibilities to Pollard, who is physically staunch and unafraid to take the ball shallow, come June.

Just for instance, there’s another effective “Bok trial” at No 10 on Saturday, where Pollard comes up against the Sharks’ in-form, hitherto Test-uncapped Robert du Preez in a Kings Park derby vital to both outfits.

They have much in common: each 24 years old, happy to take it flat, make firm tackles, and similar in tale-of-the-tape terms as well (Pollard 1.89m, 97kg, Du Preez 1.92m, 96kg).

In the Sharks’ heroic, but ultimately heart-breaking one-point late reverse to the Hurricanes in New Zealand last weekend, Du Preez was again utterly unfailing off the tee, and reminded of his defensive alertness and ability to get his hands dirty in securing cheeky turnovers.

But a certain Elton Jantjies is also running into best mojo at a good time in Johannesburg; he produced some classy, delightful touches in the Lions’ comfortable triumph over the Stormers on Saturday.

He may well be in Erasmus’s broader plans, although the near 28-year-old, despite a generous enough 23 prior Test caps, is still saddled with a reputation - and understandably, really - for playing his best rugby much more in his beloved red-and-white strip.

Jantjies just seems to fit so much better into the Lions’ fast-paced, multi-dimensional game-plan than he does any other, so how Erasmus plans the Boks to play could hugely influence whether the left-footed player fits requirements.

He is also the least physically-blessed of the major Bok flyhalf candidates, something to consider for a busy channel.

The wildcard remains the Stormers’ raw but outrageously gifted and fleet-footed Damian Willemse, still just 19. He had some problematic moments indeed during the heavy defeat at Ellis Park - arguably sending out a reminder in the process that he must not be blooded too prematurely at higher levels.

But Willemse clearly also isn’t burdened with any serious temperament-related issues: even after some glaring errors in Jo’burg, he was still having a real go at the Lions’ defence towards the end, including registering a try of his own after some dazzling footwork - that attribute, it must be said, potentially makes him a useful impact proposition for the Boks, and in more than just the flyhalf position.

Erasmus is still thought to be well disposed toward versatile Pat Lambie, now with Racing 92 in France, although his history of concussion-related problems is a bit of a complicator if he is going to be fielded close to heavy traffic.

But if the flyhalf spot is alive with options, rather the opposite applies one vital berth closer to the pack … at No 9.

A joke has been doing the rounds about New Zealand’s “First World problems” issue at scrumhalf: they are struggling, apparently, to identify their third-choice for the spot.

Of course the Boks and many other international sides would bite your hand off simply for one of the brilliant frontline pair, Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara.

As much as the Bok cupboard of truly obvious options stays leanly-stocked, the situation is aggravated by a growing list of injured personnel at present.

Although veteran Lions first-choice Cronje is the Bok man in possession, and has 10 caps, he may now be sidelined for several weeks, leaving him in some doubt for availability for the England series.

But he was also one of the playing-standards victims of the Bok struggle through much of 2017, and is not the speediest factor ever to wear a Test No 9 jersey.

Sadly there remain few noticeable – and just as importantly consistent - “generals” of the berth on the SA front in Super Rugby, even if there is some excitement in Pretoria over the potential of someone like Embrose Papier.

Nevertheless, the 20-year-old is still being used more as an impact substitute than anything else by Bulls coach John Mitchell, so just how ready would a novice like him be to suddenly start Test matches for his country?

The Stormers have a three-cap Bok on their books in Jano Vermaak, but the seasoned character seems to walk a constant tightrope when it comes to injuries; the franchise’s other main scrumhalf, Dewaldt Duvenage, is also on the crocked list at present.

Perhaps the best Super Rugby form at scrumhalf in SA terms so far has come from the Sharks pair of Schreuder (comfortable at core duties, if not oozing X-factor) and the effervescent Cameron Wright.

Yet Erasmus, clearly, isn’t yet suitably convinced about what he has to pick from on these shores, given recent suggestions that he will seek Faf de Klerk of Sale in England as a possible “exemption” from the 30-caps rule for overseas-based players.

Of course the former Lions player won’t necessarily be everyone’s cup of tea as a Test solution: in 2016, he produced the full, perplexing range of seriously hot and lamentably cold in the Bok jersey …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

the gameuct s, just run out at Kingsmead links to the Tape-gate rumpusl showing previously unreleased *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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