Cape Town — How do you play yourself back into Springbok contention? By getting the better of your fellow contenders – and Embrose Papier will get that chance when the Bulls face the Sharks on Saturday.
This United Rugby Championship clash at Loftus Versfeld (5.05pm kickoff) will see Papier – and his scrumhalf colleague Zak Burger – come up against two out of three Sharks halfbacks who were part of the Bok squad last year: Jaden Hendrikse, Grant Williams and Sanele Nohamba.
Hendrikse started in last Saturday’s 20-10 defeat to the Stormers in Cape Town, with Williams coming on to the bench, while Nohamba was a replacement for the Currie Cup side in their 35-20 win over Western Province in Durban last Wednesday.
Of course, the top three scrumhalves in the national pecking order at the moment are Faf de Klerk, Herschel Jantjies and Cobus Reinach, but Papier and Co will look to catch the eye of Bok coach Jacques Nienaber during the URC.
“Physically, I feel great. I just think I need to still do my basics well, and also stay in the system. If there is an opportunity (for the Boks), I have to take it,” Papier said after training at Loftus this week.
“Everybody who is playing rugby in South Africa wants to play for the Springboks. I still work as hard as I can. I am working hard on my basics, so if I can get that balance right – my kicking game, my passing, then everything will go well.
“I think it’s going to be a tough game. The Sharks are a really good squad. As we all know, they have a lot of Springboks in that team, so I think it’s going to be a big, physical battle. It’s difficult to come from the coast and play up here, so we must try to lift the tempo.
“If you look at their game against the Stormers, I think there are areas where we can take them on. So, I just think we can work on that and look at where their weak points are.
“Our nines have to be really fast around the breakdowns, as well as our forwards have to set first (and secure front-foot ball). There are nines (at the Sharks) who like to snipe as well.”
The 24-year-old Papier won the last of his seven Test caps against Wales in November 2018, but a lack of game time at the Bulls after that, as well as a serious toe injury last year, has seen him fall out of the Bok mix.
But with Ivan van Zyl having moved to England, Papier is now a regular starter under Jake White at the Bulls.
His box-kicking has shown considerable improvement this season – having been renowned for his speed and ability to break around the fringes previously – while he is also getting assistance from Bok legend Fourie du Preez, who is a scrumhalf consultant for the Bulls.
White mentioned last week, before the 21-13 win over the Lions, that he felt Burger “gets the ball away quicker” from the base, so Papier is also working hard on his passing game.
“Fourie is a legend. He has played a lot of games for the Bulls, and as nines, we can learn a lot with him. We also work a lot on our passes and our kicks, and our running lines. He was one of the best with his running lines, kicking and passing,” Papier said after Du Preez attended a training session this week.
“And he had a big work-rate, and earned many caps for the Springboks, so we can learn a lot from him.
“I think it’s good with me and Zak. We are also good friends off the field, and there is positive energy. I think Zak is a very hard worker on the field, and he is pushing me to be my best, and I try to push him too.
“But I think Fourie also has a big influence in how we are playing now, so he just wants us to be the best that we can be. He knows that I am more of a running nine, and Zak is more someone who stays in system, but is also a bit of a running (scrumhalf). So, he is just trying to get that into our heads – what we are and what to do well.
“I started trying different (kicking) styles, and the best is where you feel the most comfortable. So, I feel the most comfortable now with how I kick. There are times when he (Du Preez) helps us, but it’s more how you feel comfortable.”