Ross Cronje during training at EG Jansen High School in Boksburg. Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix
Now for a test of a different kind; not only for the Springboks as a unit, but for the individuals as well.

That’s what lies ahead for Allister Coetzee and his charges in the next two weeks as the Boks come up against Australia and New Zealand in the Rugby Championship, in Perth and Albany respectively.

With a record of five out of five this season the Boks appear to have turned the corner and shut the door on a disastrous 2016, but while the wins against France (three) and Argentina (two) looked good and encouraging, the four Tests - two away and two home against the same opposition - coming up will very much show just how far the team has come this year.

A number of individuals, too, face a far sterner examination of their credentials in the coming weeks than has been the case up to now. One of those players is scrumhalf Ross Cronjé who, while performing well and without fault against France and Argentina, will be measured against the best of the best in Australia and New Zealand, namely Will Genia and Aaron Smith. Also, TJ Perenara, who’s likely to warm the bench for the All Blacks.

Whether one agrees, or doesn’t, with the men in Coetzee’s squad, the reality is South African rugby is well stocked in most departments, even when the overseas players are left out of the equation, but scrumhalf is not one of those positions. And No 9 is a key area.

Consider the influential roles the likes of Joost van der Westhuizen and Fourie du Preez have played for the Boks in the past, and more recently what Genia and Smith and Perenara have done for their teams at all levels.

Heck, consider even the likes of Ireland’s Conor Murray, Ben Youngs of England and Rhys Webb of Wales - all hugely influential players.

Now, while Cronjé has been a key man for the Lions, the question has been asked if he has the game to be as big a player at Test level.

Former national captain and widely regarded one of the best to have worn a No 9 jersey, Du Preez believes the Boks have the right man at nine right now. “Ross is very solid and you know exactly what you’re going to get and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said.

“Ross is always going to give you a steady seven out of 10 performance, sometimes he’ll give you a nine, but you’ll never get a four or five, and that’s great.”

Another former Bok scrumhalf, Werner Swanepoel, agrees with Du Preez that Cronjé is without question the best man for the job.

“Based on Super Rugby form he’s the right guy ... and he fully deserves his run. His game management is good, but his service isn’t as quick as it should be. However, he’s by far the best we’ve got.”

But, and this is where the Boks have a slight problem, according to both Du Preez and Swanepoel; after Cronje there is no-one who stands out as being the right fit to start at Test level on a regular basis, as was seen when Cronjé missed two Tests earlier this season.

Rudy Paige and Francois Hougaard are the back-up scrumhalves in the squad, but their performances, albeit limited, have not been inspirational.

Francois Hougaard during training in Boksburg on Friday before heading Down Under with the Springboks. Photo: BackpagePix

“The problem is what if Ross is out for a long period? Who then will play at nine,” asks Swanepoel.

“Francois Hougaard’s reputation has taken a knock and it seems as if he just can’t get back to the player he was in his younger days. I rate Rudy Paige, his basics are good, but he takes too long to pass the ball.”

Du Preez is also concerned about the depth at nine. “There are a lot of scrumhalves who’re at the same level ... no one stands out. I think the Bok management must now identify who the next number nines are in line, get them involved and let them settle. Don’t forget as good as (Aaron) Smith and (Will) Genia are, they’ve been around at international level for some time.”

Besides the three men in the Bok squad at the moment, other options include Louis Schreuder, Jano Vermaak, Piet van Zyl, Dewald Duvenhage and overseas-based Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach, who’re not eligible at the moment.

“I would like to see Schreuder get a look-in again,” said Swanepoel. “He was excellent for the Kings, and that behind a pack that was going backwards quite often. Also Shaun Venter (at the Cheetahs) is someone who has big potential.”

But, does any No 9 in South Africa have the X-Factor, the ability to seriously keep the opposition on their toes? “It’s crucial that the basics get done first. Even the likes of Smith and Perenara first do what they have to before having a go, so I’d like to see whoever is at nine to be a little more authoritative. To be an influential number nine doesn’t mean you have to be breaking around the fringes all the time ... but be in charge and be counted,” said Swanepoel.

Cronjé has done the business against the best Australia and New Zealand offer in Super Rugby, but now he must show this at Test level. Quality outings in the next four Tests will make South Africans and the Bok coaching team sleep a more comfortably, but there remains a spot for someone to be the backup scrumhalf who’ll provide as much comfort as Cronjé does.

Sunday Independent

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