Springboks’ selection policy exposed as they seek flyhalf solutions
The Boks need to look further than Handré Pollard and Elton Jantjies.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
The Springbok coaches have painted themselves into a corner by backing Handré Pollard to start 77% of SA’s Tests over the past four years. An emphasis on development will ensure that they bolster their flyhalf depth and avoid greater issues in the lead-up to the 2023 World Cup.
It’s not hard to understand why Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have put all their eggs into the Pollard basket.
There is no like-for-like SA flyhalf competing in this country or the various leagues overseas. Few other leaders in the Bok group command the same level of respect. Bok captain Siya Kolisi has pointed out Pollard’s positive influence, particularly on the field of play.
Perhaps Bok fans should appreciate what they have in Pollard. Before Erasmus returned to SA and became head coach, the national side lacked identity and direction. The team suffered unprecedented losses throughout the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and one of their biggest problems was the lack of a strong, decisive No 10.
Pollard missed the bulk of those two seasons due to injury and illness. When Erasmus replaced Allister Coetzee in 2018, he installed a fully fit Pollard as his No 10 and vice-captain. He made it clear that Elton Jantjies would be the team’s second-choice pivot.
Pollard’s dip in form
Erasmus and Nienaber have every right to feel vindicated about this selection when they reflect on a four-year period that’s yielded a World Cup title, a Rugby Championship trophy and, more recently, a series triumph against the British & Irish Lions.
They will argue that Pollard – who has started 27 of the past 35 Tests and started again in the final Rugby Championship fixture against the All Blacks on the Gold Coast – has been at the heart of the team’s successful campaigns.
Nevertheless, every top athlete experiences a dip in form at least once in their career. Some of the greatest Boks – Bryan Habana, Percy Montgomery and “Beast” Mtawarira – bounced back from their respective struggles to become legends of the game.
Can the Bok coaches afford to be so optimistic as the team emerges from a largely unsuccessful Rugby Championship campaign that has yielded disappointing losses to the Wallabies and All Blacks?
Is backing Pollard to start all the major Tests between now and the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France going to benefit the Boks in the long term?
Bok coaches’ luck has run out
Erasmus and Nienaber pushed their luck when they travelled to the 2019 World Cup with only two specialist flyhalves in the 31-man squad.
They gambled again when they selected Pollard as the sole No 10 on matchday 23 for the World Cup playoffs against Japan, Wales and England.
The selectors’ luck held out, with Pollard maintaining his excellent form and avoiding serious injury. Jantjies wasn’t needed during that period. Frans Steyn – picked on the bench to cover flyhalf, centre, wing and fullback for all three World Cup playoffs – wasn’t required at No 10.
The Bok coaches made an adjustment for the Lions Series. Veteran Morné Steyn, the third flyhalf in the extended squad, was included on the bench for the decider.
Steyn stepped up to slot a few important kicks and clinched a narrow series win for the Boks. This was after Pollard had missed two earlier penalties.
When reflecting on that series, it may seem like Erasmus and Nienaber have addressed the issue and found a solution. With Pollard misfiring, particularly in front of goal, the coaches included an insurance policy on the bench.
When the time was right, they deployed Steyn to close out the game. Viewed in isolation, that third Test against the Lions was a clear example of a coach going to Plan B after Plan A had failed to deliver the desired outcome.
Going forward, the Boks cannot hope that Pollard maintains his form indefinitely or avoids serious injury. They also cannot bank on Steyn as an alternative in the long term, as the old man of SA rugby will be 39 by the time the team travels to the 2023 World Cup.
Jantjies needs an opportunity to shine
The Boks are under pressure to perform in the northern hemisphere after surrendering the World Rugby No 1 ranking over the course of the Rugby Championship. They may win all three Tests in the UK this November if Pollard or Steyn starts at No 10.
But while this selection policy might serve the Boks in the short term, it could cost them dearly down the line. Sooner or later, they will have to answer the question about a long-term alternative to Pollard. They can’t allow this question to go unanswered leading up to the next World Cup.
Jantjies has been praised for the supporting role he has played over the past four seasons. When assessing Jantjies as a bona fide starting option, however, it’s concerning to note that he’s played 16 Tests during that period – and only eight in a starting capacity.
Closer analysis reveals that Jantjies has seldom been backed to start the big Tests. He wore the No 10 jersey against the Wallabies in Brisbane in 2018 and against Argentina in the opening round of the 2021 Rugby Championship. Apart from those two matches, Jantjies has been asked to spearhead the “B” team when the Boks have needed to rest first-choice players or split their resources in challenging logistical circumstances.
It’s hard to know whether Jantjies has taken his game forward, given that he has enjoyed so few opportunities against top-flight opposition. Often, he has been left out of the side or has – as was the case in the clash against the All Blacks in Townsville – served as an unused substitute.
Jantjies featured in just four of the 12 Tests played in 2019. If he comes off the bench to face the All Blacks on the Gold Coast, he would have played in four of the Boks’ 10 Tests this year.
If the coaches take Pollard and Jantjies to the 2023 World Cup, they must give the latter game time sooner rather than later. Injuries are part of top-flight rugby, and it’s not uncommon for teams to lose first-choice players during a big tournament. The All Blacks lost three flyhalves over the course of the 2011 World Cup. The fourth-choice option of Stephen Donald was still good enough to slot the decisive penalty in the final.
Goosen a versatile asset
Could the Boks survive such a crisis in the event that both Pollard and Jantjies are sidelined? As mentioned, Morné Steyn and Frans Steyn are unlikely to push on to the next World Cup. The move of persisting with utility backs with little to no experience of starting at No 10 could also backfire.
Damian Willemse was hailed as one of SA rugby’s brightest prospects when he burst on to the Super Rugby scene as a 19-year-old in 2017. World Cup-winning coach Jake White went as far as to compare Willemse to the All Blacks’ Beauden Barrett.
Willemse has not realised his potential in the ensuing years. While the 23-year-old may go on to become one of the great players, he is unlikely to become one of the great flyhalves. These days, Willemse plays most of his rugby at fullback for the Stormers and Boks, although the national side has experimented with the player at inside centre at the back end of certain fixtures.
South African rugby has had a dearth of flyhalf options for the past 10 years. During this period, only seven players have featured in the position at Test level.
Four of those players – Pollard, Jantjies, Frans and Morné Steyn – are still with the Boks today. Pat Lambie (30) would have been an option had he not been forced to retire in 2019. The England-based Robert du Preez is available, but hasn’t featured for SA since winning his only Test cap – off the bench – in June 2018.
The remaining player, Johan Goosen, recently returned to SA after a long stint in Europe to join a resurgent Bulls side. The 29-year-old looks a good option for a Bok team that’s looking to boost its flyhalf stocks before the 2023 World Cup.
Goosen played most of his club rugby in France at centre, while six of his eight Test starts for the Boks between 2012 and 2016 were at fullback.
His ability to cover several positions would be an asset to any squad, and yet the significant difference between Goosen and, say, Willemse is that Goosen is currently starting at No 10 for his franchise. What’s more, Goosen certainly made an impression for the Bulls when they beat the South African “A” side in the lead-up to the Lions series in July.
Lions’ Hendrikse: one for the future
In terms of young guns, Jordan Hendrikse has impressed for the Lions in his break-out season. It wouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Boks investing in the 20-year-old flyhalf and taking him on tour to the UK this November.
Winning will be a priority when the Boks tackle Wales, Scotland and England, but so too will development with an eye to the future.
Pollard and Jantjies will have important roles to play going forward, but SA would do well to plan for the scenario in which one or both of these pivots is no longer an option. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.
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