DURBAN - Faf de Klerk’s recall from the Springbok wilderness after he made the move to Sale in England has paid huge dividends for the Boks as they try and fill the massive void that was left by Fourie du Preez after the 2015 World Cup.
Flyhalf has also been a bit problematic for the Boks, but new coach Rassie Erasmus has put his faith in the undoubtedly talented Handre Pollard who is probably still trying to get back to his best. However, the stability at these critical positions is only at the surface level, which is worrying considering the World Cup is around the corner and having two players good enough for two positions, such as scrumhalf and flyhalf just won’t do.
Erasmus has admitted that part of his mandate is to strengthen and grow the ability of his squad; he has also said that in reaching this goal he will be testing and trying out a few new players. However, what gave a lot of insight into just how difficult this will be for the coach was an instance in Durban where reserve scrumhalf Embrose Papier, clearly the chosen understudy to De Klerk, came onto the park late on in the game - at wing.
Now, the game was never really safe enough for Erasmus to throw it all in and let chaos reign with substitutes, bugger the consequences, and thus he had to think on his feet much more than he let on in the week. Decisions like managing Eben Etzebeth’s game time, playing Damian Willemse at fullback, and giving key reserves a good run went out the window. So now, Papier, another cap to his name, has gained zero experience in his key position and is nowhere nearer to being a good and seamless replacement for De Klerk.
At flyhalf, Pollard’s kicking game was probably the biggest black mark on Saturday’s match, and as this is a key role of a flyhalf it should be quite concerning. Sure, it could be an off day, or a quick fix, but of more concern is that De Klerk was the backup kicker - even more reason not to shift him off the park. Erasmus has also opted not to play a specialist flyhalf on his bench, choosing rather to use the versatility of Willemse despite wanting him to be a deputy fullback.
Again, Erasmus pivoted on his original plan to play Wilemse at the back, moving him to flyhalf in his debut after a week of probably mostly playing at No 15 - and the pressure told. Erasmus has in his stable a three-time Super Rugby finalist in Elton Jantjies, but there has been criticism levelled at the Lions man for not being able to step up in the Bok jersey, and regardless of the truth of that sentiment, Erasmus is clearly not his biggest fan.
It again means that if Pollard was to go down, or fall out of form, the back up for him is currently a one-capped youngster who is trying to build himself into a useful fullback to cover for another key figure - Willie le Roux. It will be tough for Erasmus to walk the talk about giving other players opportunities in these positions, especially in the Rugby Championship.
The remaining games are bound to only get tougher as the opposition steps up, and the venues change. However, the coach will need to be bold, and maybe take some hits, in the remaining nine Tests of 2018, before the World Cup next year. But, no South African coach ever wants to lose lest he invokes the poisoned chalice that comes with the position.