The Springboks were faced with an unhealthy situation before the World Cup this year as a result of the uncertainty over just who was the best flyhalf to wear the No. 10 jersey at the global showpiece.
Morne Steyn made the position his own after starring in the 2009 international season, but his declining form (without scrumhalf Fourie du Preez alongside him) last year carried over into the Super Rugby competition this year.
With neither the Bulls nor Steyn particularly imposing their presence during the Southern Hemisphere domestic competition, it was no longer a certainty that the goal-kicking kingpin would retain his place as the first-choice flyhalf at the World Cup.
In fact, it looked increasingly likely that Butch James would take on this role – as he did at the 2007 World Cup – when he was left back in South Africa along with a number of other frontline Boks during the away leg of the Tri-Nations.
With a mix-match team around him, Steyn was pretty much hung out to dry during those two away Tests, and was even shunted into the fullback position for the game against the All Blacks in Wellington so that Pat Lambie could get a run at flyhalf.
Upon the team’s return to South Africa, James was indeed handed the No. 10 jersey for the Test against Australia in Durban – the penultimate game before the World Cup – and that, it seemed, was that.
However, in a rather cruel twist of fate a gust of wind dislodged the ball from the kicking tee when James was lining up a fairly regulation shot at goal during the Test, and in a rushed re-do the kick was missed.
In his recently released book ‘Butch’, James admitted that this missed kick probably cost him his starting place at flyhalf in the World Cup, with the importance of Steyn’s pinpoint goal-kicking having then been reassessed and recognised as a priority in the team’s title defence attempt.
Steyn ended the debate with an impressive kicking performance in the Boks’ final Tri-Nations Test against New Zealand and went on to start every game at the World Cup at flyhalf.
While his goal-kicking was as accurate as ever, Steyn typically didn’t offer much else on attack or defence, while he should also shoulder responsibility for not dropping into the pocket more regularly during the quarter-final to attempt more drop-goals.
This is the background that needs to be kept in context and in mind as we contemplate the future of Bok rugby and indeed the next generation of flyhalves.
South Africa is blessed at the moment to have a number of young flyhalves that have immense potential and the ability to ensure that any debate around the No. 10 position before the next World Cup will be a healthy one.
Let’s take a look at some of the top contenders to feature as the first-choice flyhalf in the years to come:
In just a few years, Lambie has gone from a schoolboy rugby star to the starting fullback for the Springboks, having become the first Bok produced by Michaelhouse. Lambie has predominantly featured at fullback during his career – ending this year with a run in the No 15 jersey – but he is just as comfortable at flyhalf and finished the 2010 season with many pundits believing that this was his better position.
With a natural feel for the game, Lambie has the uncanny ability to know when to take the ball to the line, kick or pass.
While he doesn’t boast express pace, he is an elusive runner and his impressive technique in the tackle means he is not a liability on defence despite his fairly diminutive size.
At just 21 years of age, Lambie has also already built up a fair bit of experience at a provincial and international level and has never looked out of his depth. Lambie needs to improve his goal-kicking consistency and requires the backing to settle at flyhalf, but the youngster would be an excellent long-term investment at 10.
The Lions’ star finished the year with a stunning man-of-the-match performance in the Currie Cup final that underlined just how much the youngster has matured over the last year.
His goal-kicking was absolutely faultless during the semi-final and final, while his calmness under pressure was mighty impressive.
With an extensive bag of tricks, Jantjies is a more flamboyant flyhalf, but has battled with up-and-down form at times in the past.
However, under the tutelage of former mercurial All Blacks pivot Carlos Spencer, Jantjies’ game has come on in leaps and bounds, and he is now a more complete player.
Last year, Jantjies started at flyhalf for South Africa against the Barbarians, with Lambie accommodated at fullback, and many will quite understandably suggest this is the way forward for the Boks.
The Baby Boks flyhalf burst onto the senior scene during this season’s Currie Cup, cementing himself as the Cheetahs’ first-choice flyhalf.
The talented Sias Ebersohn finished the Super Rugby season as the Cheetahs’ No 10 with a number of impressive performances, but such is the talent of Goosen that he became the preferred choice during the domestic season.
The teenage sensation vindicated this decision as he excelled in a number of games, most notably against the Sharks in mid-September when he scored in every way possible as he contributed 29 points in his teams’ 53-32 win.
The former Grey College pupil went into the Currie Cup semi-final having slotted 30 out of 31 kicks at goal, but it’s not just his booming boot – a massive 67m penalty against Paul Roos is a YouTube hit – but his all-round game that catches the eye. Goosen boasts a dangerous side-step, is solid on defence and distributes the ball well, leading many to suggest that he has the potential to become the complete package in the Bok No 10 position.
He is one for the future, though, and still has to prove himself at Super Rugby level.
With Grant spending much of his time plying his trade in Japan, some may have forgotten what a viable candidate he is for the flyhalf role.
The former Maritzburg College pupil has been a consistent performer for the Stormers where he has grown his game over time and built up some good experience.
However, besides five games as a replacement for the Boks over 2007 and 2008, Grant has rather unfairly not found favour with the Bok selectors. With the necessary all-round attributes of a flyhalf and a fair bit of experience behind him, though, the 27-year-old would be a good option to take the Boks forward.
With age and experience also on his side, one shouldn’t rule Steyn out as a candidate to continue adding to his Test tally. Most will feel after the last World Cup that it’s time to go ‘out with the “old” and in with the new’, but a lot depends on the outlook of the new coach. We all know what Steyn brings to the party and if the Boks stick to a percentage-based kicking game going forward, he could still be seen as the man for the job.
My pick for future Bok flyhalf: A lot depends on Super Rugby form and game-time at flyhalf, but I’d back Lambie; Grant being a close second.