The inability for a settled Bok halfback combination to establish itself at Test level has been a perennial problem that still haunts the national side, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Lions duo Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies have started the last six Tests at 9 and 10. Since 2011, there has only been one other occasion that the Boks have had the same halfback pairing for that successive sequence of matches.
That fact is revealing in itself, and yet the unfortunate reality is that the Bok coach once again looks to have little choice but to make a much-needed change to this all-important combination.
During this Super Rugby season, De Klerk and Jantjies thrived in a stable team environment for the Lions, with the Johannesburg-based side settling on a style of play that clearly suited the strengths of their two halfback generals.
Many believed that the duo would be a shoo-in to start the Test season in the Bok 9 and 10 jerseys, and while Allister Coetzee clearly had the same view for his starting scrumhalf, he caught some by surprise when he entrusted Pat Lambie to start at flyhalf in the first match of the year.
It’s something that has been largely overlooked in the wide-ranging critical assessments that have followed the Boks’ subsequent struggles ever since Lambie was quite literally knocked out of the equation when he suffered a horrible blow to the head midway through the first half in the opening Test against Ireland.
Although the Boks let themselves down in that opening quarter by conceding an array of penalties, Lambie looked confident and assured at flyhalf. After an injury-disrupted couple of years, there was reason to believe that Lambie’s time had come to make that Bok No 10 jersey his own this year.
Indeed, there was even more cruel irony to the fact that Lambie suffered his nasty concussion in the act of enforcing a pre-planned kicking strategy to chip the ball in over the Irish defence.
When he left the field, Jantjies slotted in at pivot, but for one reason or another, he failed to continue implementing the kicking plan that the Boks had envisaged as they ultimately slipped to a historic first-ever defeat to Ireland at home.
Perhaps therein lies the rub. At the start of the season, Coetzee knew he needed a flyhalf with the necessary experience to first and foremost fulfil the primary requirements of a Test No 10: perform as a general who can manage the game with accurate kicking out of hand, astute decision-making, solid goal-kicking and strong defence.
Lambie ticked those boxes, and his absence has compromised the Bok cause this season, not to mention that of Handré Pollard. Lest we forget, it was also ahead of the first Bok Test that Coetzee reiterated that while he would never look to stifle De Klerk’s X factor, he made it abundantly clear that his primary role was to kick solidly and provide good ball to his flyhalf. As he put it at the time: ‘It’s not about hitting sixes from the get-go.’
And among a myriad of problems that have emerged as the season has progressed, it’s been clear to see that the Boks have lacked the necessary game management and consistency from their halfback generals. This is not an attack on either De Klerk or Jantjies, but simply to point out that their strengths were never ideally suited to a Bok side in transition, and that first needed some pragmatism before attacking panache could be factored in.
With less than 20 Test caps of experience between them, how could De Klerk or Jantjies ever be expected to perfectly guide the Bok ship? Coming from a Lions set-up where they're not tasked with primarily enforcing a consistent out-of-hand kicking strategy, how could they be expected to not struggle with that transition on the far more high-pressured Test stage?
Yet, there were very few other options. Pollard has been out with a serious injury, Lambie was laid low after 20 minutes of action and no other flyhalf really made his mark in Super Rugby. Among the halfbacks, Fourie du Preez has retired, overseas-based Ruan Pienaar is past his best, Rudy Paige battled for form in Super Rugby, Francois Hougaard has had Blitzboks commitments, while Cobus Reinach is injured.
Throughout Heyneke Meyer’s tenure, he repeatedly expressed his wish for a South African-based scrumhalf to really establish himself as Du Preez’s successor. It never happened and eventually he had to turn to Du Preez and Pienaar as his primary scrumhalves at the World Cup. There was little else he could do.
Similarly, when Meyer lost faith in Morné Steyn in 2014, he made the bold move to back Pollard as his 10, but while it initially reaped reward, it still seemed as if the former Bok coach was in two minds as to whether Pollard or Lambie was the best bet at the World Cup.
And so it’s been. In 2011, the Boks used five different halfback combinations. In both 2012 and 2013, there were four different pairings in action, while in 2014 and 2015 there were six and three different 9-10 combinations that were used respectively.
And now, after the struggles of De Klerk and Jantjies to assert their authority this year, another change looks on the cards. A perennial problem has reared its head again, and while it’s clear that the Boks desperately need to settle on a stable 9-10 combination, the options are limited.
Yet, if Hougaard and Lambie are to be those men moving forward, then they need to receive unequivocal backing and clear direction for the foreseeable future.
Photo: Patrick Hamilton/Getty Images