Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Super Rugby 2019 will give Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus the reassurance of knowing he may have as many as half a dozen Test-class, home-based flyhalves to choose from if necessary during this World Cup year.
That is the confident tip of Vlok Cilliers, one of South Africa’s premier specialist kicking consultants and dual former Test and SA Sevens international.
Cilliers, who runs a school in that facet of the game in the Western Cape and has advisory stints around the rugby planet, told Sport24 this week that he expected Bulls-based Handre Pollard, the Bok No 10 incumbent, and his frequent deputy off the Test bench last year, Elton Jantjies of the Lions, to remain at the top of Erasmus’s pecking order in the critical strategic berth unless they quite dramatically lose mojo ahead of the Test programme.
But even with experienced Pat Lambie out of the picture now due to his enforced recent retirement through repeated concussions and other injuries, Cilliers believes a well-stocked next tier will keep the Bok mastermind heartened during the Super Rugby campaign and beyond, in the lead-up to RWC 2019 in Japan later in the year.
These are his expectations over the next few months of some of the frontline No 10s with SA-based Super Rugby sides (including references to their immediate franchise understudies in certain instances):
Handre Pollard (Bulls)
“Last year I thought Handre, who finally seemed free of his serious earlier injuries, showed that he may well be among the top three flyhalves in the world; up there with the Sextons, Farrells and so on.
“He was an anchor for the Springboks, and took on responsibility very willingly ... he should do exactly the same for the Bulls, and it is going to take a lot for someone to play him out of pole position in the country at ten.
“More and more, too, we could see him play the last 20 minutes at inside centre, both for the Bulls and the Boks; he has the physical and other skills for the job. The Bulls should not be scared to introduce the very talented Manie Libbok in the flyhalf channel during matches, as he is developing well.
“I think the Bulls can surprise a lot of teams this year, and both Handre and whoever is his scrumhalf will benefit also from having Duane Vermeulen’s expertise nearby, as a fine manager of play from No 8.
“Last year Pollard and Embrose Papier seemed to enjoy linking up as a nine-ten combination, although (Andre) Warner and (Ivan) Van Zyl give you different, extra options at nine for the Bulls.
“For Test and Super Rugby combined, Handre had around an 85 percent success rate with his place-kicking in 2018, which is brilliant. Yes, he missed a couple of easy ones here and there, but you’re not going to bang everything over. For me the best thing about his kicking at poles is that he handles the pressure. He took control of the exit kicks just as impressively.
“He is a very dangerous player again, including on defence - some flyhalves concede yards in the tackle but he is strong and committed and doesn’t do that.
“Pollard is ticking all the boxes as we speak. If he were to get injured, it would be a massive blow for the Bulls and Boks.”
Elton Jantjies (Lions)
“I see this as a big year for Elton to take real responsibility as a senior player, especially now that the Lions have lost major guys like Franco Mostert, Jaco Kriel, Rohan Janse van Rensburg.
“They’ve got to find themselves a new identity now, and Elton at 28 years old has to show Rassie that he can be a general, above just his huge all-round talent, if he wants to be the top SA flyhalf.
“Has he added some new aspects to his game? Will he perhaps be prepared to get more physical in his channel? Get more distance with kicks out of hand? We will see in Super Rugby.
“It’s a big year for Elton to show ‘I really want to go to that World Cup’. That should still happen, although I hope he reduces his error rate - something that can afflict him even in games where is playing really well otherwise.
“But look, at Ellis Park he can also be super-dangerous for the Lions, with their fast style of play: great hand skills, smart little tactical kicks when they are on the front foot. He can look left and pass right ... scores a few good tries, too.
“Elton is a different player to the more direct Pollard, but that is why having both in the Bok match-day squad often works quite nicely. I think they are our clear, frontline two No 10s looking toward World Cup.
“He gives impact off the bench, although he may also start Tests here and there; perhaps at the World Cup when we play Namibia, Italy ...”
Robert du Preez (Sharks)
“The Sharks continue to have the big Du Preez versus Curwin Bosch debate at flyhalf, and there is a case for both arguments.
“But I am also a big believer in settling on the exact way you want to play, and then empowering one flyhalf to feel like the settled guy, at least for a good run of games.
“Robert didn’t have a bad little spell at Sale in England recently, I thought. He kicked well, even got a couple of man-of-the-matches. It will have given him a great deal more experience - I remember Juan de Jongh saying to me how much he learnt just in his first four months overseas; different demands that you just don’t learn back home.
“I’m not sure yet whether Du Preez would be in Rassie’s ‘top three’ plans at flyhalf this year, so he may have to convince him otherwise during Super Rugby. It’s a long season; anything can happen.
“But he will be a key factor for the Sharks, as will Curwin in his different ways, although I see Bosch possibly more as a fullback at this stage … more freedom, space, and he doesn’t have to defend the ten channel where there are people right in your face.
“Robert is more like a Pollard for directness, flat play, and some muscle at No 10. Good kicker, too, although he needs to step up his accuracy at poles: I see him as a player with a percentage somewhere in the mid-70s; he must get it closer to 78 or 80 and stop missing fairly simple ones as he occasionally does.
“The one thing I would like to see from him in Super Rugby this year is to take control of a game quicker, put his stamp on things. A flyhalf mustn’t start to have a presence after 20 or 30 minutes; he must try to dictate things from the very first minute.
“In England I did notice he seemed more verbal, bossing the forwards around and so on. That’s good, maybe an improved dimension that we will see at (Kings Park).
“If the Sharks can have Du Preez and Bosch on the same field, remember that Bosch is so useful with the big range on his kicks – both from hand and at the posts.”
Damian Willemse (Stormers)
“It will be difficult at times for (head coach) Robbie Fleck and those close to him to decide how to set out their stall at flyhalf for the Stormers.
“I know Damian, who is an unbelievably thrilling footballer, ultimately wants to be flyhalf but he played at fullback for the Boks last season and just got out of the No 10 habit a bit ... it is a position where you like to feel settled and sharp.
“Maybe there’s almost too much versatility at Newlands; they might be tempted to look at Damian at fullback too, as Dillyn Leyds could switch from No 15 to wing if required.
“I rate Jean-Luc du Plessis highly, talent-wise; it is just that some horrible injuries have set him right back in the last couple of years and he may take time to click to his best this season. He looks a natural in the position, has good awareness and kicks constructively out of hand.
“Josh Stander has impressed me also; he played some great rugby at times in last year’s Currie Cup and I liked what I saw again on Super Hero Sunday at Cape Town Stadium the other day.
“But whatever you do with Damian, don’t box him ... he needs freedom to play, to show his magic, whatever his role. He is like Elton in that respect.
“He is still learning, as you would expect of a guy of 20, how to genuinely take control in the flyhalf channel. He must be a threat not just because of those amazing stepping skills; it must come via his boot as well when it is necessary.
“In his favour is that he is a big boy; quite physical and prepared to put in big tackles. In other respects, I currently see Damian as a Beauden Barrett type of flyhalf: lethal speed, extremely dangerous ball in hand, counter-attacker, a personal try-scoring factor ... just the kicking, in all facets, that still needs some brushing up.”
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