Cape Town - The lack of a cutting edge or suitable sense of confidence and command at scrumhalf, such a pivotal position, continues to haunt the Springboks.
It is just one reason, though a far from insignificant one, why Bok backline play remains stubbornly as blunt on the European tour as a Michael Cheika or Jose Mourinho sporting media soundbite after a grumpy day at the “office”.
Sadly the reasonable level of investment in incumbent Ross Cronje - he now has nine caps - seems to be producing diminishing, rather than flourishing, returns.
The Lions No 9 has started all three Tests so far in the northern hemisphere, and perhaps just reminded that he is better suited to the firmer surfaces of the Highveld back home, where tactical requirements in the role are often less intricate.
Especially poor in the 38-3 thrashing from Ireland (in fairness, so were a great many team-mates), Cronje has been only slightly better in scrappy victories over France and Italy and still not achieving anything like the standards of authority or fluency of service in the berth the Boks require.
In a nutshell, South Africa still fall well short of unearthing a general there even vaguely in the mould of a Fourie du Preez, who had a broad X-factor to go with his assuredness in tactical kicking and the like.
The situation is not hugely the fault of much-maligned head coach Allister Coetzee, an accomplished scrumhalf in his own playing days, as there couldn’t be (and weren’t, either) too many gripes over his choice of the trio in the spot - Cronje, Rudy Paige and Louis Schreuder - for the end-of-year mission.
Most observers ruefully acknowledge that the cupboard of choices, certainly from domestic rugby, is stubbornly lean, particularly when it comes to acceptable levels of consistency among individuals.
Various alternative names do occasionally get shouted - usually from people touting someone from their particularly province - but neither Super Rugby or the Currie Cup this year unearthed someone with irresistibly appealing credentials for the green-and-gold berth.
There is a case for arguing, for example, that the pair of “nines” from Currie Cup-winning side Western Province - Jano Vermaak and Dewaldt Duvenage - are no worse than any of the three who eventually went on tour with the Boks.
Of course there have also been extremely limited opportunities of late for frequent bench-man Paige to show his worth; he’s had just 32 minutes of exposure across two Tests and didn’t get on the park at all in Paris.
The uncomplaining Bulls representative, evidently a popular squad member, has earned a fair bit of support from critics to feature more prominently - including toppling Cronje to a renewed start to a Test - but is it more of an emotional call, in some senses, than one based on full-hearted belief that he is the guy to finally cut it?
While it is true that he brought a certain, improved effervescence when he replaced Cronje after 55 minutes in miserable Padova on Saturday, Paige also struggled to clear the ball with suitable haste a couple of times and he can get banged out of the way physically in an important defensive channel.
So while reservations clearly still hover unbudgingly over both Paige and Cronje, shouldn’t the Boks, fast approaching the game-four finale against Wales in Cardiff this weekend, be prepared to have an educative peep at that hitherto very peripheral tour figure Schreuder at the Principality Stadium?
In other words, at least have the bravery to install the uncapped Sharks player on the bench and potentially unleash him if the situation warrants it, to gauge whether he does properly swell the Bok options at No 9 down the line?
It seems an unlikely event, though, primarily because coach Coetzee is fighting desperately to save his job and may be reluctant to rock the selection boat too profoundly in some slots as he seeks a third victory - warts and all, thus far - on the trot.
Naturally the unsettled situation around the three tour scrumhalves also opens up fresh debate around whether the Boks, in 2018, should revisit the credentials of overseas-based nines like Cobus Reinach (Northampton Saints) and Faf de Klerk of Sale Sharks.
Sunday newspaper speculation in Rapport a few days back suggested that diminutive former Lions favourite De Klerk may be targeted for fresh activity as the Boks get ducks in a row with greater urgency for RWC 2019.
But is he really a potential saviour?
He ought to gain appreciable street wisdom from his stint in the English Premiership, which is gratifying, but there were also occasions during his decidedly up-and-down Test exposure in 2016 when he looked horribly short of the kind of cool-headed game manager favoured by many decent international teams.
Right now, the scrumhalf struggle simply continues ...
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