CAPE TOWN - Legendary All Black and Crusaders scrumhalf Justin Marshall says he’s not sure if the Springboks have unlocked the formula to finding the right scrumhalf yet, but he is positive that a decisive No 9 is the key.
The scrumhalf position is one that’s been a troubling one for the South Africans, who have only Ross Cronje, Rudy Paige and Francois Hougaard in their scrumhalf selection pool since Faf de Klerk’s departure.
When De Klerk was included in the Springbok starting line-up for the three-Test series against Ireland with Lions teammate Elton Jantjies as his halfback partner, he seemed like the answer to the Boks’ scrumhalf problem with his energetic performances and quick work. And, of course, he gained a mass following with that spectacular spot-tackle in Port Elizabeth that sealed a series victory for the Boks.
But the Lions star quickly went from hero to villain as he became increasingly scrutinised for his at-times erratic passing that put Jantjies under pressure.
De Klerk might have been prematurely discarded from the Bok set-up, and maybe he could have become a real solution at scrumhalf. His passing certainly had to be worked on, but his on-field presence is still to be matched by any of the current options.
Cronje has also been solid for the Boks, with his always-calm and reliable demeanour. But Marshall is of the opinion that the Springboks are “still experimenting.”
“I don’t think South Africa have found their way yet, they’re still experimenting. Whether or not Francois Hougaard is the answer, is Cronje the answer, I’m not sure. But it’s a position that’s vitally important for the team and its confidence,” said Marshall, who holds the record as the most-capped All Black halfback.
Marshall, who now shares his rugby knowledge as a commentator, also said that a good relationship between the scrumhalf and flyhalf can only be good - something that we haven’t seen between Hougaard and Jantjies yet, while it’s obviously much better with Cronje.
“I certainly think someone in that position needs to be decisive, if they’re decisive, the team reacts positively,” he said. “Having a good relationship or (halfback) partnership makes a massive difference.
"If you can develop a formula where you get two of the best players in the country who play in the same team and know each other on and off the field, know each other’s mannerisms... if they can play together internationally in that respect, that will be a good thing too.”
New Zealand, of course, don’t have that (scrumhalf) problem. In Aaron Smith, the All Blacks have the world’s leading No 9 who boasts skill, guile, pace, and decision-making... yeah, that almost freakish ability he has to assess a situation quickly and react at the same speed.
And then there’s TJ Perenara - Smith’s “back-up”, but a scrumhalf that any international team would be lucky to have.
“We do have some depth at halfback and we’ve got players in that position that are world class,” Marshall said of New Zealand's scrumhalf options.
“New Zealand’s game at the moment is built around speed at the breakdown and keeping the ball flowing quickly so that the opposition can’t adjust on defence - Aaron Smith is a genius at doing that.
“I certainly think that other halfbacks in the country have started to emulate what he’s doing. It makes the All Blacks’ game plan and the way they’re playing dangerous. So halfbacks are really important in making that happen.”
There are many things that went wrong for the Springboks in Albany - when they suffered a 57-0 smashing against the All Blacks - and Marshall thinks that one of their main let-downs was the fact that they didn’t take all their chances.
“It certainly was a learning curve for South Africa. They’ve made some adjustments to their game plan. They were full of confidence when they got to New Zealand that they’d turned a big corner and that their game had changed.
“But I think they very quickly found out that if you don’t take your chances when they present themselves, the All Blacks will strike and before you know if the game would have gotten away from you. Simplistically that’s what happened to them.”