Johannesburg - The search for the man to wear the Springbok No 9 jersey for the Rugby Championship and November tour of Europe begins on Saturday.
National coach Heyneke Meyer’s first assignment of the year – the June Tests – may be done and dusted, but he’s almost certain to take a mighty interest in the last few rounds of Super Rugby as he hunts for a scrumhalf to fill the boots of Fourie du Preez.
The veteran No 9 will miss the Rugby Championship and November tour to Europe after picking up an ankle injury in the Boks’ runaway victory over Scotland last weekend, leaving a huge hole to fill in the team.
“It’s a massive blow to lose yet another world-class player and a key player due to injury,” said Meyer this week.
“Fourie is also a dynamic leader and one of the vice-captains in our team and his injury is a huge setback.
“Fourie has been brilliant since he returned to the Springboks last year and he will be missed.”
Du Preez will be out of action for at least six months after undergoing surgery in Pretoria this week.
While there are scrumhalves cable to stand in for the veteran World Cup winner – who now plays his rugby in Japan – Meyer will want to make sure he gets the right man for the tasks ahead with Tests against Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, in the Rugby Championship, and Ireland, England, Italy and Wales, in November.
The obvious choice to wear the No 9 jersey is Ruan Pienaar, a seasoned campaigner who’s been part of every Bok squad since making his debut in 2006 and, surprisingly, has six more Test caps than Du Preez (70), for so long the first-choice man for the Bok coach.
Pienaar, though, plays his rugby abroad for Ulster, and hasn’t quite convinced Meyer he has all the skills to be a serious first-choice contender.
Sadly, Pienaar has never been able to replicate his Sharks and Ulster form for the Boks.
Also in the running will be Francois Hougaard. But he, too, hasn’t followed through on the potential he showed as a youngster at the Bulls.
There are elements in his game that need work, but with 28 caps he’s got the experience to be in Meyer’s thoughts. Hougaard will be one of the men the national coach will be hoping ends the Super Rugby campaign with a bang, starting on Saturday when the Bulls visit the Stormers.
Also in action will be Louis Schreuder, a man Meyer has called up to the squad before, but he’ll only be playing off the Stormers’ bench.
A player who’s got more of a chance of getting a tick behind his name is Hougaard’s back-up at the Bulls, Piet van Zyl. The former Cheetahs man has played little rugby this year, but he was highly rated at one stage and even earned two Test caps under Meyer last year.
The hot favourite to be next in line, possibly behind Pienaar and Hougaard, is the Sharks’ Cobus Reinach, who’ll run out against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday. Yet to feature in a Bok squad, the 24 year old has for some time been the best of the South Africa-based scrumhalves.
Charl McLeod, with one Test cap in 2011 and playing off the Sharks bench on Saturday, and Sarel Pretorius of the Cheetahs, will still harbour hopes of playing at a higher level. “Fourie’s injury provides an opportunity for other scrumhalves to prove themselves and make the step up when the opportunity arises,” said Meyer.
The big outsider to take over from Du Preez, of course, is former Sharks and Lions No 9 Rory Kockott, who’s been a star for Castres in the French top league for the last few years. The 28-year-old Kockott has also qualified to play for France, but one wonders whether he’ll be getting a call from Meyer in the next few weeks.