Ross is ready for Bok scrumhalf role
SINCE the great Fourie du Preez starting losing his grip on the No 9 jersey for the Boks, there have been a slew of exciting, yet raw, talents lining up to try and occupy that all-important position.
In the latest call up of scrumhalves, there are a few familiar faces in the Bok green, but the name that sticks out as a favourite to provide the much needed stability is the totally green Ross Cronje.
A debutant he may be, but Cronje has all the qualities that an adrift Springbok team could use.
Cronje is now 27, but he, and his twin brother Guy, with their shock of blonde hair still invoke incredible memories from the 2007 Craven week where they tore teams apart for KwaZulu-Natal. They were already being spoken of back then as a dreamy 9, 10 combination for the Boks, but it has been a long wait for the mentally tough Ross.
When the twins were Under16, at Michaelhouse, they broke precedent by being called up to play for their school’s first team. Once it was all cleared with parents and Rectors alike, it was a move that director of rugby at the school, Ryno Combrinck, has never looked back on.
“It started when they were Under-16,” Combrinck, relative to another Springbok in Ruan Combrink, explained. “Controversially, I phoned the Rector – who was in Australia – and asked for permission to include them into the first team, it was not something that had been done before, but what they had shown in their ability, and their determination, warranted the phone call.”
That indeed has been the key to Ross Conje’s call up – his determination. Combrink remarks easily and almost nonchalantly how astute of a scrumhalf Cronje is, ticking all the boxes from passing, kicking, attack and defence, but it is mental fortitude that separates him from the pack.
Competitiveness and determination are what spring to the mind of the director of rugby that had so much to do with Conje’s formative years. Both Ross and Guy were always putting in the extra work when no one was watching, all for the end goal of making a success of their rugby lives.
“Ross has that mental toughness,” Combrinck added. “What he has done at the moment, and what people are not noticing, is he has out- played the incumbent Springbok scrumhalf... out of the Lions and the Boks, and people miss that.”
It is a good point that Combrinck raises; Faf de Klerk, such hot property for both the Lions and the Boks last year, has been coming off the bench in Johannesburg and has not been considered nationally.
The contrast between the two is obvious, and to put it another way, De Klerk is your pinch-hitter no 7 Batsman in a cricket team – A ‘Boom-Boom’ Afridi-type, whereas Cronje is the classical opener.
“Ross will bring a calmer mind, like an opening batsman,” Combrinck described quite effectively.
“He was also a very good cricketer, playing first team at Michaelhouse, and like an opener, he brings calm in the heat of the moment on a rugby pitch.”
“The margins at Test level are so small, so you have to make much better decisions. Some of the other scrumhalves are wild, which has its merits, but you need a guy that is teamfirst, and that kind of stability will be good for a guy like (Elton) Jantjies, and good for the team, as well as the coach.”
Indeed, the Boks have had their share of scrumhalves that enjoy a run and can make a bit of magic happen. Cobus Reinach, De Klerk, even Francois Hougaard, in the squad for the French series, all have a skill set that cannot be coached. But perhaps this is not what the Boks need in their current situation.
“Ross brings a lot of versatility and calmness – kind of what you would expect from a good cricketer,” Combrinck concluded.
You would have to say that Conje is indeed the form scrumhalf in the country, with Francois Hougaard playing for Bristol, in England, and Rudi Paige struggling to even make the starting line-up of a poor Bulls team.
However, there is a lot that this group of three scrumhalves can bring to the Boks as a collective. Paige and Hougaard are experienced Boks, with the latter having that much-loved X-Factor.
Paige has promised much since his selection for the Rugby World Cup in 2015 as an uncapped player. He was chosen ahead of Reinach, who had a very contrasting style to the Bulls man, perhaps for that very reason – a hope of stability and calmness to be infused from the base of the ruck and scrum.
However, the Bulls man is yet to fire on full cylinders in a Bok jersey. Soon he will need to repay the faith shown in him, and one can only hope that this extended run for the National side is building his confidence to match his potential.
Hougaard has been a name on the lips of many pundits since Du Preez hung up his boots. Again, the tattooed Bristol-based scrummie was a juxtaposition of his longtime mentor Du Preez, both at the Bulls and the Boks.
Hougaard has had the instruction of one of the finest scrumhalves of the modern era, but he is also fully his own man and brings something very special to the field. The hope again would be that the former Bulls man has matured his game in England – where he is a cult hero – to be a true game manager, while still bringing a heap of X-factor to a Bok side looking to evolve.