CAPE TOWN - Should Rassie Erasmus give Damian Willemse a go at flyhalf against Australia? Following the Springboks’ dismal defeat to Argentina in Mendoza at the weekend, that is only one of a number of questions that can, and should, be asked as the post-mortem begins.
To single out the flyhalf wouldn’t be fair. The Boks, as a unit, just weren’t up to it. We saw embarrassing defensive errors. There are more questions than answers regarding the loose forward combination. The Boks’ work at the breakdown wasn’t up to standard and their scrum wasn’t much better. There were too many opportunities on attack left out there to dry at Malvinas Argentinas. There were a couple of inexcusable clean steals at the lineout and the set-piece continued to disintegrate as the clocked ticked on. Argentina were just better.
But you also can’t overlook Handré Pollard’s performance, especially given that the Mendoza mess was his second subpar outing in as many weeks. Again - there were shockers among the outside backs, in the pack and in a lot of other parts of the Bok game - but the flyhalf position has been a big talking point and it will continue to be after this game. And, conversely, it was the one position that was seemingly spoken for before the Championship kicked off, while a lot of the other positions were still up for grabs.
Pollard’s unsatisfactory display borders on unacceptable when compared to that of his opposite general on the day, Nicolas Sanchez, and any room for reasonable comparison disappears when Beauden Barrett’s masterclass earlier on the day is brought into the equation.
What makes the Springbok flyhalf dilemma an even more worrying one is the fact that Pollard’s outings are starting to look more like an out-of-form situation as opposed to just a single off-game, or an occasional and fleeting dip. And that concern has extended to more than just his goal-kicking - an aspect of his game which has been completely insupportable in the first two Rugby Championship games.
Goal-kicking can be worked on, but Pollard’s problems didn’t start and end in front of the tee. In Durban he didn’t direct play as well as he should have (Willie le Roux also came in at first receiver a lot and looked more like the general) and some of his passes weren’t great, in fact some of them put his teammates under pressure.
But in Mendoza he just flat-out disappeared at times. And you should never be able to say so about a flyhalf...not at any level. Make that an international flyhalf and it becomes an unforgivable sin.
You have to call the shots. You have to direct play. You have to be there. Pollard probably shouldn’t even have been kept on the field for so long. Not in Durban and especially not in Argentina. I get it - you can’t just chuck a player aside at the first glimpse of a struggle. Nothing will ever be solved then, and the Boks will sit with the same revolving-door problem when it comes to flyhalves - at next year’s World Cup and beyond.
But you also can’t allow a player in such a crucial position to safely retain his spot despite struggling at the expense of another who could do with the growth. You shouldn’t allow that just because you don’t want to be too disruptive. Sure, it would probably be easier not to take a risk with the inexperienced Damian Willemse as the Rugby Championship heads into the next-level challenge for the Boks. Easier, but not better. Besides, one thing’s for sure - if the Boks go into the remaining games with these kinds of issues from their 10, the Mendoza humiliation will suddenly be an easier, more pleasant one to reflect on.
More game time would of course have been better for Willemse in an ‘easier’ game than a fixture at Suncorp Stadium against Australia. But if there’s one thing the Pumas have showed us, it’s that a Championship match - whether against the All Blacks or Argentina - can't ever be considered easy.
Coach Rassie Erasmus has spoken about building depth and going into next year’s World Cup with a flyhalf who can handle the pressure more than once, and he also said the 20-year-old Willemse has the talent and the physical readiness at his age to do what Frans Steyn did at a similar age for Jake White at the 2007 World Cup.
But at the same time he has said he wants Willemse to be introduced to the world of international pivots gradually, and said he is planning to blood Willemse as a fullback rather than at No 10 as the vision from the back would teach him a lot in terms of assessing play. But maybe it’s time for Erasmus to make a bold call and trust Willemse's talent and readiness. What does he have to lose?
Willemse looked promising when he came on in Mendoza with his carries and initiative, while his sublime combination of physicality - particularly in defence - and X-factor are well known. There’s of course also the option of starting Willemse at 10 and Pollard at 12 - a combination which could give Erasmus some peace of mind as Willemse will have the experience of Pollard next to him. It’s not like the No 12 slot has been undoubtedly claimed. And, for the long run, it’s something which should definitely be tried.
Besides, Willemse has what it takes to become a great international flyhalf. So maybe it’s time we stop seeing it as a gamble and just give him a chance?