No 10 is No 1 Bok priority
Plenty of back-up needed at flyhalf
IN THE 2011 Rugby World Cup final, it was All Blacks flyhalf Stephen Donald who kicked the winning points in the low-scoring arm wrestle between France and New Zealand.
It was “cometh the hour cometh the man,” or more accurately for coach Steve Hansen, it was cometh the fifthchoice flyhalf... Dan Carter had been injured early in the tournament, and then a string of replacements went down too, eventually leading to Donald getting a call on his cellphone while fishing on the Waikato River.
It is tales such as this one that Rassie Erasmus is bearing in mind when he speaks of the vital necessity of stacking up quality players in each position, especially in the spine of the team – hooker, No 5 lock, No8, scrumhalf, flyhalf and fullback.
Together with winning and transformation, building depth is a principal feature of the mandate given to the new Springbok coach by his employers, and we have seen Erasmus tackling all three in his five Test matches in charge thus far, even if depth enhancement came at the expense of winning in two of the matches – against Wales and in the third Test against England.
And in this regard the vital flyhalf position is of major concern to Erasmus.
It is clear that he has settled on Handré Pollard as his first choice, even if the Bulls man has shown himself to be more than fallible this season, especially with his goal-kicking, but there is a grey area as to who the back-up to Pollard is going to be.
There is Elton Jantjies, sometimes unjustly vilified for the glitches he has shown on the international stage; the emerging contender Damian Willemse; outsider Robert du Preez, who is perhaps justified in feeling that he has not yet been given a fair shake in the green and gold; and Patrick Lambie, who Erasmus mentioned in his early days as coach but has not had an airing this year because of injury.
This time last year, the name of Curwin Bosch would have been in the mix but Erasmus’ hands are tied regarding Bosch because in Super Rugby he played every game at fullback for the Sharks.
As things stand right now, the 20-year-old Willemse appears to have jumped the queue after impressing for the Stormers at flyhalf with his physicality on defence and skill on attack. He was a beacon in the morass of disappointment that was the Stormers’ Super Rugby season.
After the third Test defeat to England, a match in which Jantjies had an unfortunate performance, the Bok coach mentioned in the post-match press conference that Willemse had always been in his plans, and that he had seconded him to the SA Under-20 team to get further experience in the position, only for him to get injured in the Under-20 World Championship and thus miss the rest of Super Rugby.
He nevertheless came straight into the equation for the Rugby Championship when he was named on the bench, ostensibly as fullback cover for Willie le Roux, but with the latter delivering a commanding performance against the Pumas, Erasmus was compelled to bring Willemse on at flyhalf, with off-colour starting No 10 Pollard moved to No 12, and André Esterhuizen subbed.
“We know how talented Damian is and we will have to see how quickly he gets it right at this level,” Erasmus said.
“There hasn’t been a World Cup won with a flyhalf under the age of 24. That’s your quarterback and it’s the position where you must be in control.
“But maybe Damian is in the mould of Frans Steyn when he was 19, who can just step up and do it straight away. Things change quickly in rugby in terms of injuries. You have to make alternative plans, and he might surprise you so that you don’t have to look at the other guys,” Erasmus said in revealing his hand.
Jantjies, though, can still make a case for himself if he is given decent opportunity, and takes it. For the last two years he was the scapegoat for the poor Bok performances and a comparison was made with how good he was for the Lions.
Perhaps the reality is that at the Lions he had clear direction as to how to dictate play but was at a loss in this regard at the Boks.
And how would Jantjies have fared had he played in the first and second Tests against England and not the experimental third?
The reality is that in the 13 months to the first World Cup match in Japan, injuries will strike. They are as certain as death and taxes. We know that Pollard can be injury prone, just as all the leading flyhalf candidates will know that there is everything to play for.