With the imminent return of Johan Goosen to the Bulls, the phenomenal form of veteran Morne Steyn at the same franchise, and the continued consistency from Elton Jantjies at the Lions, the concern that has characterised the absence of Handre Pollard needs to be reassessed writes Oliver Keohane.
At the beginning of last year, the form of the Springboks backline depended primarily on the fitness of Handre Pollard. While the coaching staff has never faltered in their backing of Elton Jantjies as the established second option, and young talents Damien Willemse and Curwin Bosch continue to develop locally within the context of a greater and more long term international plan, there was the immediate worry from the South African fanbase when Handre Pollard went down with a season-ending injury.
And rightly so, not as an attack on the the qualities of Jantjies and the potential of Willemse and Bosch, but more as a compliment to the class of Pollard, who was Carter-like in his influence during the Springboks victorious 2019 World Cup campaign. If the Springboks are to be facing the British and Irish Lions in 2021, the absence of arguably the best flyhalf in the world at the close of 2019 is natural cause for concern.
With respect to Jantjies, he is not in the class of Pollard (not many are), and with respect to the potential of Willemse and Bosch, they remain cases of potential rather than established players within the national setup.
And so, it is with great relief and excitement that South Africans welcome back the experience, class and quality of Morne Steyn, who steered the Springboks to victory over the British and Irish Lions in 2009 and the prodigious talents of Johan Goosen, who returns to South African shores not short of experience, having been brilliant in France, featuring sporadically for the Springboks and now, after time away from rugby, has regained a hunger and appreciation for the game that may previously have been lacking.
Goosen left South Africa as a young prodigy, but he returns with no questions around his capabilities. Equally potent at flyhalf or fullback, he can offer a very similar impact to that of New Zealand’s Beauden Barrett. Morne Steyn, at 36, kicks with the same precision he always has, but his potency with ball in hand and his tactical kicking have been unmatched in South Africa’s local rugby season.
What Steyn and Goosen offer to the Springbok setup is not a like for like replacement of Handre Pollard. What they offer is breathing room. They offer the comfort of experience and form at the highest level, and they provide stylistic variety in the flyhalf position.
The Springboks without Pollard, have gone from Elton Jantjies as the only viable second choice, with two players still in development potentially having to take the reigns, to positional depth that could see either Jantjies, Steyn or Goosen start at flyhalf for the Springboks with either one occupying the bench on any given day. This allows for an experienced starter and substitute, but it also allows for Willemse and Bosch to continue their development at the necessary pace, rather than being thrust onto the biggest stage not fully prepared.
The Springboks now have flyhalf depth that runs three-players deep, excluding their prodigies, and the return of Pollard looming all the while. One could argue that in 2021, the Boks will boast the best depth at flyhalf in the world, without even having the world’s best flyhalf.