The Springboks need to find answers to the questions that persist around their backup depth at scrumhalf and fullback, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
As the Boks head into the final two home Tests of the Rugby Championship, Rassie Erasmus should be a relatively satisfied coach.
The famous win over the All Blacks in Wellington has relieved some building pressure, and will have afforded the Boks some much-needed breathing room. No matter what happens for the remainder of the season, the Springboks will be able to point to that victory as a template to illustrate what they are capable of.
It was also in New Zealand that we saw Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux silence growing whispers of concern around some prior inconsistencies, with the overseas-based duo pitching in with some telling X-factor contributions.
With less than a year to go until the 2019 World Cup, the good news is that the Boks have found the men who appear more than capable of retaining first rights to the all-important scrumhalf and fullback berths.
In fact, their value has been most aptly reflected by Erasmus’ reluctance to pull them from the field of play.
Le Roux’s experience in a new-look back three has made him a vital cog in the Springbok wheel that is slowly turning in the right direction, while his ability to offer another playmaking option at first receiver has added some innovation to attacking proceedings.
Similarly, De Klerk’s speed of service and ability to offer a sniping threat around the fringes has quickly turned him into one of the Boks’ most unpredictable weapons. His terrier-like ability to make a nuisance of himself on defence is an unexpected but added bonus.
All in all, Erasmus’ first-choice starting lineup has probably begun to solidify itself after the memorable Wellington win, but there are some considerable question marks that hover in the context of the wider squad (particularly with the World Cup in mind).
The Springboks will need to take three scrumhalves to the global showpiece in Japan. Injury permitting, De Klerk has sewn up one spot, but he needs someone nipping at his heels.
There have been little look-ins for Ivan van Zyl, Embrose Papier, Ross Cronjé and even Cameron Wright, but their collective game time can almost be counted on one hand (only Van Zyl and Papier have some match exposure to speak of).
Scrumhalf has been a problem position for some time, but the pressure to achieve the top priority of winning rugby has made it almost impossible to cast the net beyond a key playmaker such as De Klerk. Similarly, Le Roux has fulfilled an indispensable role as another backline general.
All that said, Erasmus won’t want to wait too much longer before testing the depth beyond this duo.
Although Le Roux returned to his English club last week, his services have been retained by the Boks for the final two Rugby Championship Tests.
The 29-year-old’s availability is a major boost for the Boks, but the time has surely come to allow talented youngster Damian Willemse to spend some time at fullback, and to get a sense of whether he can sink or swim.
It’s notable that the Boks made a request for Willemse to be deployed at fullback in Western Province’s Currie Cup clash this past Saturday, and it’s clearly a position where they feel he can contribute at the start of his Test career.
Cheslin Kolbe has been deployed out on the wing in the last two Test matches, but he could certainly offer another option at fullback, while of course it can’t be forgotten that the injured Warrick Gelant remains firmly on the radar.
At scrumhalf, Papier and Van Zyl are the two backup scrumhalves picked for the final leg of the Rugby Championship, and whoever cracks the nod as a substitute needs to be trusted with an extended run off the bench.
Erasmus has suggested that any experimentation will come to an end when the end-of-year tour rolls around. De Klerk and Le Roux have settled in at the top of the pecking order in two key positions, but now is the time to start testing the local waters for some reliable backup.