CAPE TOWN - Scrumhalf was a promising position for the Springboks early last year, but after disappointing stints by the men who had a chance at No 9, the hunt for a Bok fox terrier snapping at the heels of the pack continues.
After the retirement of Fourie du Preez, the epitome of scrumhalf brilliance, Lions star Faf de Klerk brought new hope as he continued his superb Super Rugby form when he donned the No 9 jersey during the three-Test Series against Ireland in June last year.
It can be said that it was his heroics that saved the Boks and clinched them the 2-1 series win against an Irish outfit that, despite having been without a number of their key men, actually deserved to secure their first-ever series win in South Africa.
During those Tests, De Klerk looked sharp. He was the standout player in two of those three battles, with his game-breaking ability and alertness proving superior, while it was his defensive genius that snatched a victory from the Irish in the Series decider in Port Elizabeth.
He was again strong when the Boks opened their Rugby Championship campaign against Argentina at the Mbombela Stadium, and he was instrumental in Allister Coetzee’s team’s 30-23 come-from-behind win - with that fantastic inside pass to Johan Goosen setting up a much-needed try.
But just like the rest of the Springbok players, De Klerk’s form also took a dip as the Rugby Championship progressed and his weaknesses were gradually exposed.
He struggled to control the game at times, and he often put his Lions teammate and flyhalf Elton Jantjies under pressure with his passing, while his decision-making was also questionable.
And as the Boks became poorer, De Klerk became more error-prone and erratic.
Then came Bulls man Rudy Paige. A player who doesn’t come close to De Klerk in terms of game-breaking ability.
Paige was simply ineffective. He offered no solution to the clear problem at scrumhalf, and a few appearances at No 9 (when he wasn’t on the wing) by Francois Hougaard didn’t leave Coetzee or the rest of South Africa smiling either.
So as we approach the three-Test series against France, it’s safe to say that the Boks have no clear solution for one of the most important positions on the field.
But Coetzee does have options.
Besides going back to De Klerk and Paige, there’s also Bulls man Piet van Zyl, who got a 15-minute cameo off the bench for the Boks last year, and Sharks scrumhalf Cobus Reinach - a bit of a forgotten man when it comes to the Springbok camp.
Van Zyl is a good attacking player, but he doesn’t always exude that calmness and tactical know-how that one needs in that position.
Reinach, on the other hand, is a nippy scrumhalf (to use a dreaded cliché) with a great passing and tactical game. And his ability to accelerate out the blocks is pretty amazing.
The nine Test-capped Bok also has three Springbok starts to his name and his stints with the Boks included a few satisfying ones. And after recovering from a serious knee injury in 2016, the 26-year-old can boost the Sharks squad again.
But the opportunistic scrumhalf signed with the Northampton Saints, who he will join at the end of the season. This has clashed with SA Rugby’s new policy, which states that only overseas-based Springbok with more than 30 caps will be considered for selection in future.
Then there is Jano Vermaak, who has found new spring in some ageing legs. But he is obviously not a long-term solution. And of course, a talented youngster like Godlen Masimla has sadly not had enough game time to prove he can step up to international level.
So what to do?
Despite De Klerk’s dip in form last season with the Boks, I still think that he is the most deserving candidate of that Bok spot.
He showed what he could do early on last year, and his energy and ability to influence a match is still better than any of the other current candidates.
So even though things didn’t always go smoothly for De Klerk in the Test arena last year, the same (or worse) can be said about the rest of the Boks.
And if there’s one person who deserves a chance to make up for last season, it’s him. After all, he’s saved the Boks before. So they at least owe him that.