If the Springboks are to contend at the next two Rugby Championships and ultimately the 2023 Rugby World Cup, they need to start entrusting players outside of their primary 23 with game time, in order to build competitive depth. Most especially at flyhalf, writes Oliver Keohane.
Since the Erasmus/Nienaber takeover of 2018 the Springboks have built up a depth that for a long time has been lacking in South African rugby. The roles of players within the squad has also been transparent and allowed for a buy-in to the system that Erasmus and Nienaber have implemented. Everyone knows who the starting guys are, who the bench guys are and who remains as injury cover.
It is a system not so much rigid as it has been necessary: The Springboks needed to win the World Cup and could not afford to toy with combinations, equally they needed to do the same during the British & Irish Lions tour, and it was made even tougher by injury to key players. After an unexpected first loss to Australia, the need to keep fielding their first choice players for the rest of the Rugby Championship remained in a way that it may not have, had the Boks won the first Test against the Wallabies and been able to give some fringe guys game time in the second Test.
But now, for the first time since 2019, the Springboks primary objective should not be winning through the same team every week, but rather building to a position where they would feel comfortable enough to win without their first choice having to start every game.
There are a couple of positions where the need to address this has become more and more obvious. One of them has been at fullback, and we reported on Victor Matfield’s calls for Aphelele Fassi to be given an extended run on this end of year tour – not to retire Willie Le Roux, but to begin the building process at fullback.
But flyhalf is a position that has screamed for attention this season. Handre Pollard is South Africa’s best flyhalf; a World Cup winner, British & Irish Lions series winner and half-centurion. He remains the first choice without a doubt.
Handre Pollard can have off days, and Handre Pollard can get injured. We witnessed this first hand this season, where his kicking has not been up to scratch, and where he performed poorly against Australia in the Boks’ two losses to them. It happens, and it makes sense given that Pollard plays nearly every minute of every game. When you are playing that much, you are bound to have a bad day at the office. The issue is not Pollard’s very human fallibility, but rather the seeming lack of willingness to take him off or rest him for a week.
The reassurance one would hope the Springboks have gotten from this year is that in their two most crucial moments, their two replacement flyhalves came through. Morne Steyn played 15 minutes in the Lions series but in those 15 minutes he kicked two penalties to win the Springboks the match and the series. Besides a World Cup, a rugby player – and especially a goalkicker – will not have a more pressured moment than that.
Equally, Elton Jantjies, whose international career has been characterised more by mistrust and inconsistency than any extended backing, was brought on for the final 20 minutes against the All Blacks in the last match of the Rugby Championship and played a primary role in winning the Springboks the game. The irony is that his substitution was enforced, through injury to winger Sbu Nkosi, and not intended. Jantjies came on at flyhalf, Lukhanyo Am moved to the wing, and Pollard moved to inside centre. In those final 20 minutes, Jantjies produced his most complete performance as an international flyhalf, and besides his more subtle contributions he kicked a drop goal, assisted a try and then kicked the match winning penalty in the 79th minute. Final score 31-29 to the Springboks. It is not going to get much tougher than that, and in coming good in the moment there needs to be more trust placed in Elton Jantjies moving forward.
The Springboks will face Wales, Scotland and then England to end off what has been the most insane year of rugby that this group of players has ever experienced. None of these will be easy games, but what better situation to test the trust of your back up players, and allow for some rest of others?
Edinburgh head coach Mike Blair has said of Morne Steyn, ““The type of player he is, he’s probably got another couple of years in him. He’s a Rolls-Royce. He keeps his shirt clean, he moves the guys around the pitch. He’s like the conductor – he puts the team in the right places.” The Boks know what they have in him, and he needs to be utilised more.
In the case of Jantjies, there must be reward for his game-changing role in the All Blacks match. Give him an opportunity to start against a team that isn’t Argentina, give him a chance to perform. It will only be for the better of the Boks in the long run.
The Springboks have the quality of player at flyhalf to rotate them for the end of year tour, they do not have the pressure of winning a World Cup or a Lions series, and they have the prize of a 2023 World Cup to start planning for. As much as it is about giving game time to guys who will very likely have to play in crucial moments, it is also about ensuring the longevity of first choice players like Pollard, who cannot carry the load of starting every weekend for the next two years.
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