Springbok legend Victor Matfield was spot on in his calls for Aphelele Fassi to feature primarily at fullback for the Springboks come the November tour, writes Oliver Keohane.
It has been a gruelling year for the Springboks, who since their return to Test rugby have won a British & Irish Lions series and completed a Rugby Championship, spending around 17 weeks in different bio-bubbles and playing ten games on the go. The break before the November Tests is welcomed by all, but as much as those primary 25 players who featured week in week out will be in need of this break, there are players within the wider squad desperate for game time and who deserve to be given an extended run at the end of this year.
Aphelele Fassi is one of those.
Fassi debuted on the wing against Georgia in the Springboks opening international of the year and looked the real deal, contributing heavily and scoring a try in the 40-9 victory. In his only other opportunity, against Argentina at the beginning of the Rugby Championship, he was equally impressive and scored again as the Boks emphatically won 32-12.
There is a general understanding as to why the same players were selected every week, and it is a large part of the reason that the Boks were able to pull off a Lions series win and a victory over the All Blacks in the last match of the Rugby Championship. What it means though, is that Fassi, for all his promise and quality performance, has had 160 minutes out of a possible 800 minutes of Test rugby this year.
And so Springbok lock-turned-analyst Victor Matfield is entirely correct in saying that Fassi needs to be backed in these November Tests, and he needs to be backed at fullback. Matfield expressed these views recently, speaking on SuperSport’s show Super Rugby.
It is no indictment on Willie Le Roux, but rather an acknowledgement of the reality that November needs to be the start of the Le Roux succession plan. There is no other fullback that can lay claim, through form, to being next in line before Fassi, and so Fassi needs to be allowed the chance at Test level to prove that he can thrive at 15.
Le Roux, understandably, started receiving criticism for his form towards the end of the Rugby Championship. But this is also a Le Roux who has played nearly every minute of every match at fifteen and could also just do with a break.
The fortunate position that the Springboks are in is that Frans Steyn’s value as insurance policy player was reaffirmed in his phenomenal second half performance against the All blacks, where he replaced Wille Le Roux at fullback on half time. Le Roux was struggling on the night, and Frans Steyn came on to orchestrate a match-winning second half from the back, along with replacement flyhalf Elton Jantjies who kicked a drop goal, assisted a try and kicked the penalty to win the game.
What this means is that Fassi can be thrown into the deep end in November, but with Frans Steyn and Willie Le Roux as water-wings. Willie may be nearing the end of his career, but I don’t believe he is done just yet, and a break on the bench without the responsibility of starting every week can only be good for his body, but moreover his mind. Equally, Frans Steyn will continue to be the safety net, and if Fassi struggles, Frans comes on. It needn’t be made more complicated than that.
Fassi is only 23 years old, but he commands a presence. He has done so consistently at fullback for the Sharks, and it is testament to his qualities that he grabbed his international opportunities playing in a secondary position.
But now is the perfect time to let Fassi loose at fullback, not only because it is necessary, but because the Boks are perfectly positioned through Frans Steyn and Wille Le Roux to ensure that there will be experience on the bench should Fassi falter. But he has given every reason so far to believe that he will thrive, and hopefully Matfield’s views are echoed among the Bok management as they prepare for the Northern Hemisphere.
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