Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - In the third of a six-part examination of the South African teams’ resources for Super Rugby 2018, Sport24 studies the various flyhalves/scrumhalves ... also providing a score out of 10 in each instance for expected level of health in the department.
READ: SA Super Rugby preview: The centres
READ: SA Super Rugby preview: The back threes
Handre Pollard ... or bust!
That’s what many will be inclined to think about the Bulls’ prospects in the halfbacks department this year; he stands out as a beacon of proven quality in an otherwise fairly meagre, often raw-looking cupboard at Loftus.
Towards the end of last season, the sturdily-built flyhalf was beginning to show signs of finally recapturing the inventiveness and cutting edge that so impressed people worldwide in his earliest Bok exposure against premier foes like the All Blacks a few years ago.
Remembering that he only turns 24 in March, there is plenty of time for him to blossom again to those levels, assuming he stays generally injury-free.
Pollard brings flair and directness to the No 10 channel, and if he were to go down, the Bulls are left with solid, dedicated but often less mercurial alternatives like Marnitz Boshoff and Francois Brummer.
Then there’s the No 9 issue: coach John Mitchell having debatably overlooked Springbok Rudy Paige for his first full squad of the season, and someone like Piet van Zyl lost to London Irish, the Bulls are woefully short of prior Super Rugby experience in the berth.
Which of Ivan van Zyl, Embrose Papier and Andre Warner will be the cream rising to the top?
Er, will the cream even rise at all? We’ll know soon enough …
Flyhalf/scrumhalf pool of talent rating: 5/10
Yes, he still flatters to deceive in the green and gold, but we know one thing about Elton Jantjies: put him in that red and white jersey and he usually becomes a transformed, delightfully expressive character.
Jantjies has been a faithful servant of the Lions since 2011 (save for that less-than-stellar single year at Newlands) and still pulls many of their vital attacking strings; it should be no different during 2018.
But if Jantjies were to miss games for any reason, the Lions could be scraping the barrel a little in terms of a proven, remotely comparable replacement.
The task might land in the lap of Malmesbury-born Ashlon Davids who is courageous - the words of his coach Swys de Bruin – but fairly small for the unforgiving needs of this competition in that channel. Shaun Reynolds is another greenhorn ready to plug a hole.
Scrumhalf should be fairly OK: Ross Cronje has plenty to prove after subsiding more and more in Bok terms last year, albeit that he is another who automatically looks more comfortable on duty for the Gauteng outfit.
He should be pushed by one of the intriguingly bigger-built, emerging No 9s in the country, Marco Jansen van Vuren: we could see generous opportunities for him off the bench at the outset of the Lions’ roster.
Flyhalf/scrumhalf pool of talent rating: 6/10
Who could dispute that the Sharks have seriously decent frontline options at flyhalf?
The recapture of Robert du Preez from Newlands this year makes it highly likely that he will catapult straight in as main man at No 10, where his willingness to take the ball flat and not shirk the collisional aspect could get a lot out of those in wider backline berths.
Du Preez, 24, was looking the real deal in WP’s victorious Currie Cup campaign last year, and Cape Town’s loss is Durban’s big gain.
But even if fullback now seems his logical spot for a start, there is still a certain, talented young Curwin Bosch to consider as a flyhalf option for the Sharks with his slightly different set of skills.
The similarly versatile Garth April also remains on the books and can be a game-breaker on a good day despite his unremarkable stats in physical terms.
Scrumhalf? Not much wrong with a mainline stock comprising Louis Schreuder, a slow developer but seemingly getting there now at 27 as a maturing game manager, and the vastly experienced Michael Claassens, who remains a particularly good guy to have when conditions are either filthy or at least a bit damp and slower underfoot.
He is one of the grand old men of Super Rugby at 35, but not yet especially handicapped by that.
Flyhalf/scrumhalf pool of talent rating: 6.5/10
Injuries have cruelly played havoc already, in several areas, with head coach Robbie Fleck’s early-season plans at Newlands.
This area of the park is no special exception, considering that respected figures like Jean-Luc du Plessis (flyhalf) and Jano Vermaak (scrumhalf) were anticipated to make delayed starts to the programme.
Du Plessis, especially, already seems to have been out for an eternity, so hopefully when he does return, the son of old Newlands cult figure Carel du Plessis will regain his sharpness and confidence fast.
On the brighter side at No 10, there is a clear gateway of opportunity for that massively exciting attacker Damian Willemse - yup, not quite yet 20! - to establish himself for the time being in the flyhalf berth.
He has extraordinary stepping and passing skills, and isn’t the smallest figure at pivot, even if big examinations lurk in terms of his tactical and place-kicking game.
For game one against the Jaguares at Newlands, I’d expect him to start in combination with the trusty enough, intelligent and very seasoned Dewaldt Duvenage as his “nine”.
Further protection in these positions for times of possible crisis will come from people like loaned George Whitehead at flyhalf (he cut his Super Rugby teeth with the Kings back in 2013) and Justin Phillips as an additional scrummie.
Flyhalf/scrumhalf pool of talent rating: 6/10
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing