Gavin Rich – SuperSport
Johannesburg – The mention of one name should be enough to hazard a rethink among those that feel that because he didn’t perform when instructed to sink or swim at Newlands this past weekend, Elton Jantjies should be headed for the Springbok scrap-heap.
That name is Stephen Donald. It was Donald, a long time stalwart at Super Rugby level but a limited player by international standards, certainly if you use the All Blacks as that yardstick, who stepped into the breach to kick the crucial points that mattered when New Zealand broke their long World Cup drought by winning the 2011 final in Auckland, according to SuperSport.com.
Donald had been away fishing when he was called by the All Black management deep into that tournament when first choice Dan Carter was followed onto the injured list by a host of back-up players.
Bok coach Rassie Erasmus has not forgotten the role Donald played in that All Black triumph because he mentioned it last week. He didn’t mention Donald by name, but it was who he was referring to when he said that New Zealand were down to their fifth flyhalf in 2011.
Erasmus reckons that flyhalf back-up, as well as No 5 lock, hooker and fullback, are the key areas that no coach can feel he has enough of when he heads into a World Cup. Sanitised though the sport is becoming, rugby remains attritional, mainly because those who administer it are taking a while to cotton onto the theory that less may well be more. In other words, there is too much rugby. That means that injuries do happen and will continue to happen, and as we saw with New Zealand seven years ago, they can sometimes hit you in plague-like proportions in one position.
That is why even though it is probably by now blindingly obvious if you read between the lines of Erasmus’ post-match comments at Newlands at the weekend that the precociously talented Damian Willemse will be fast-tracked from here, it may also be premature to say we have seen the last of Jantjies as a Bok flyhallf.
To do that would mean shunting the Lions pivot out of the top four or five contenders, and bad though he may have been in Cape Town, he is still too good for that. Regardless of what happens between now and next September’s start to the World Cup, Jantjies has a base of international experience that could yet prove useful to Erasmus and the Boks.
And on Saturday, with the resumption of Super Rugby, there will be a flyhalf confrontation between two players who may feel they injured their chances of being in the World Cup mix that could be every bit as crucial to Erasmus’ thinking as whatever Willemse and Handre Pollard might do in the forthcoming Rugby Championship.
Robert du Preez was the man who endured a nightmare start to his international career when, after having kicked a crucial penalty with his first touch of the ball at test level, he then went on to have two kicks charged down in the dying minutes of the game against Wales in Washington. He will be lining up for the Sharks in Durban in a clash with Jantjies’ Lions that his father of the same name, the Sharks coach, is sure to bill as a knock-out fixture for his charges.
After losing their last game before the break to the Jaguares, the Sharks do need to win against the conference front-runners to retain any hope of qualifying for the play-offs. Adding to the Sharks’ motivation will be the Bok ambitions of players such as Du Preez as well as Andre Esterhuizen, the centre who probably wasn’t helped by the fact his chance to impress against England came outside the error-ridden Jantjies.
It appears that it is Jantjies’ temperament that is most questioned by his critics, and perhaps rightly so. He does appear to lose his authority as a flyhalf when he has someone challenging him for his place, as was evidenced last year when he was good as the Bok No 10 until Pollard came back into the mix after recovering from injury.
But there should perhaps be a bigger consideration for Erasmus when he considers who will fill the two flyhalf positions in a match 23 (the Bloemfontein experiment when he penned in fullback Willie le Roux as the back-up was surely a one-off) going forward. That relates to playing style. Pollard, who takes the ball flat, is more similar in playing style to Willemse than to the more pocket orientated Jantjies. The same can be said for the well-built and physical Du Preez.
Erasmus would probably agree that by being given just a few minutes, Du Preez was one of the players in the squad who did not really get a proper opportunity to prove himself in the June international season. He resisted the temptation to give Du Preez a role and chance to redeem himself in the dead rubber test on the grounds that “Robert can regain his confidence by playing well in Super Rugby”.
He said exactly the same about Jantjies after the game, thereby adding some international relevance to the personal duels in Saturday’s big derby match. Jantjies is probably no longer the Bok second choice flyhalf, but there will probably be three pivots taken to the World Cup. The battle for that extra position, with whoever joins Pollard and Willemse in the Championship squad taking up the pound seat status, starts in Durban.
Complicating the issue for Erasmus is the likelihood though that Willemse, if the prognosis of six weeks out for the injury that truncated his appearance at the World Junior Championship is correct, won’t be playing any more Super Rugby this year. That means that if he is selected into the Championship squad, he won’t have played for over two months.
The Stormers, who are the one South African team who have definitely said goodbye to any hope of play-off participation, head to Buenos Aires to play a Jaguares team that was in great form before the break but which may have had some momentum broken by the horrendous form they showed as the Pumas during the international window.
A series defeat to Wales, where the winning margins for the team from the Principality were all wide ones, was followed up this past weekend by a harrowing 38-3 loss to Scotland. It will be interesting to see how that impacts on the Jaguares’ momentum as they go in quest of top spot in the South African conference.
The Bulls looked out on their feet before the break and will be looking to lift their intensity back to where it was during their impressive middle stages of the season when they visit Singapore on Saturday to face the Sunwolves.