A thrilling victory against Wales at Loftus Versfeld served the powerful Springbok juggernaut yet another warning that the gearbox is long overdue for a service, writes ZELIM NEL.
There’s nothing wrong with the engine. Yes, the world champions pulled off in second and made a shuddering start to their first Test of the season, with uncharacteristic errors contributing to an 18-3 half-time deficit against Wales, but which of the other powerhouse nations pulled out of the garage on Saturday with eight starters that had jetted in from foreign clubs?
None of Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Jasper Wiese, Franco Mostert, Faf de Klerk, Elton Jantjies, Damian de Allende and Cheslin Kolbe played their rugby in South Africa this year, and the bench included four more overseas-based players in Malcolm Marx, Vincent Koch, Kwagga Smith and Willie le Roux.
Once the engine had warmed up, the Bok heavies powered an industrial comeback. And though the early errors of Wiese and De Jager contributed to Wales streaking into a 15-point lead, the chief reason Willemse’s penalty was required to save South Africa from a first home loss against Wales was the lack of drive from the tactical decision-makers.
The Boks have won a World Cup and beaten the British & Irish Lions with De Klerk, Handre Pollard and Le Roux at the wheel – debating their ability to function against the best teams in the biggest games is a moot point. But for too long the warning light indicating their misfiring form has been ignored, and on Saturday night the consequences had the local tow trucks racing each other to Loftus.
De Klerk struggled in his first Test since October last year. The blitzing fringe defender and clutch opportunist was absent, replaced by a satisfactory scrumhalf who mixed good passing with miscues.
Pollard didn’t play – having just returned from sitting on the Montpellier bench in five of his eight appearances for the Top 14 club this year – and the bench is where Le Roux started the Test.
The trio are the Bok starters and some version of that fact has been the answer whenever concerns have been raised about the back-up options.
Rassie Erasmus has invested 22 Tests in Jantjies to compete with Pollard since 2018 and yet there are few, if any, who believe the former has applied any pressure on the latter for the No 10 jersey. That may be partly because Erasmus has made no secret of his conviction that Pollard is SA’s best flyhalf, but that is again missing the real question – who is next-best?
Jantjies was thrown into the deep end against Wales, and he looked every bit like a player starting the season-opener after six months on ice, much of it spent recovering from shoulder surgery.
He was replaced by Le Roux at half-time. In 73 Tests, Le Roux has never started at flyhalf, and yet his unique role in Rassie’s plan has been to serve as a secondary playmaker to Pollard, a mediocre distributor with a big appetite for taking the ball to and across the line.
Le Roux’s passing and decision-making was integral to the Bok fightback against Wales in the second half, as was Willemse’s contribution as he took up position closer to the ball on defence.
There are roughly 15 Tests before the world champions roll onto the starting grid in Paris to race for the Webb Ellis Cup, and a close shave against Wales has again exposed the lack of clarity in the depth at key decision-making positions.
As the saying goes, forwards decide who wins, the backs determine by how much. While South Africa can arguably field the two best starting packs in the world, Le Roux and Willemse teamed up on Saturday to highlight the difference good drivers can make.
Cobus Reinach is currently injured and Herschel Jantjies is slowly building up a head of steam – an injury to De Klerk would be disruptive, not catastrophic.
But it’s much murkier around 10 and 15 where Willemse and Le Roux look very promising at flyhalf but are relegated to fullback where they manage the shortcomings of the pivots in poll position.
Willemse has only five Test starts in a Bok career that has seen him trapped in the purgatory of a utility role, and that which threatens the progress he made at the Stormers this year with continuity of selection.
Le Roux has been a fixture at fullback, flashing moments of creative genius while struggling for consistency in the fundamentals of the position.
Rassie is known for excellent preparation, and brave calls in the remainder of this series against Wales must be made to ensure the Boks are firing on all cylinders at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.