Cape Town – Springbok head coach Rassie Erasmus’s current backline bench policy, precluding the presence of a specialist back-up flyhalf, contains elements of risk … he will know it.
While a split of 5-3 in favour of forwards (and sometimes even 6-2) is commonplace among the reserves in modern rugby, it does leave the near-unavoidable possibility, at times, of some berths in the back division not being covered as soundly as they could be.
Right now, Erasmus seems happy with a formula of using Herschel Jantjies (specialist scrumhalf), Frans Steyn and Jesse Kriel as his trio of subs behind the scrum for most critical assignments: it applied against New Zealand in Wellington and Argentina in Salta during the Rugby Championship, and he has employed it again for Friday’s Test against Japan – widely seen as a simultaneous revelation of his hand for the RWC 2019 opener against New Zealand two weeks later.
Having those three on the splinters means that midfield, in particular, is rosily covered – both Steyn and Kriel are highly proven, accomplished centres at the highest level – while Kriel can be a highly competent wing and fullback and Steyn is also a bastion of assuredness in the last line of defence.
But it does mean that the pivot position assumes a certain fogginess in the event – and touch wood it doesn’t happen in Japan – that Handre Pollard succumbs to injury and is forced off the pitch reasonably early.
In short, Erasmus’s backline bench policy looks a lot more suitable for matches where Pollard, presently playing some of the best rugby of his life, is able to go the “full 80” or, at worst, be yanked off at a reasonably advanced stage where the result in Bok favour is not in any significant doubt.
Yes, there’d be a touch of drama if he needed to be replaced early in a genuinely strength-versus-strength fixture … and it is mostly for reasons related to his highly trustworthy place-kicking.
That wasn’t too much of a problem toward the end of the 2018 international season, when Lions stalwart Elton Jantjies frequently found favour with Erasmus as a second-half supersub – usually at flyhalf, his most customary station.
The left-footed Jantjies sometimes took to the pivot berth with Pollard seamlessly shifting to twelve himself, but whether or not the Bok first-choice No 10 was still on the field when he made his appearances, it meant there was at least one proven goalkicker available to the Bok cause.
That changes a bit, however, with current policy: if Pollard cries off, something of a predicament rears its head.
General play in the flyhalf channel, it must be said, would not be too adversely affected: Steyn is up to the task there (especially with his sturdy defence and physique-aided, Pollard-like willingness to receive the ball close to the advantage line) and fullback Willie le Roux also has some lingering memories from provincial level of pulling the strings in his exciting, unpredictable way in that capacity.
Le Roux is not averse, remember, to popping up as a first receiver on the attack, his deft passing skills often playing a key role in fracturing opposition defences.
But the mercurial fullback is no specialist off the tee (not these days, anyway), largely taking him out of that important equation. All 60 of his Test points have come through 12 tries.
Senior Bok scrumhalf Faf de Klerk has been putting in admirable work with Sale Sharks as an occasional back-up place-kicker, but again, he has not had a crack at the task yet in the pressure-cooker environment of Test rugby.
So if the Boks find themselves in the rare situation – and minus an “Elton option” among the reserves -- of Pollard being absent at a vital time for requirements in place-kicking, it basically becomes Frans Steyn or bust, given the current personnel structure on match days.
That is both good and bad: the one thing you always know is that Steyn’s right boot is an astonishingly booming one; he can bang over a penalty from 60 or more metres and still clear the crossbar with plenty to spare if he has struck it sweetly.
But it was also sometimes said, during his Sharks days, that you’d stake money more confidently on him landing a monster than a more “routine” shot from, say, 35m and a moderately wide angle.
For shots at the posts taken within the opposition half, Pollard has a major edge, traditionally, over Steyn in reliability terms.
That is one reason, even if the seasoned Steyn might well provide wonderful impact value in other capacities off the bench, why Pollard most commonly seeing out – or very nearly that – crucial matches will be a staunch desire of many Bok enthusiasts at the World Cup.
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