Handré Pollard’s latest injury setback poses an uncomfortable question about the flyhalf position ahead of the World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Up to now, most of us have been comfortable with the South African flyhalf equation. Pollard will travel to the World Cup as the Springboks’ first-choice No 10. Elton Jantjies will go to Japan as Pollard’s understudy, while Damian Willemse will provide further cover at flyhalf.
But what if Pollard isn’t fit? What will Rassie Erasmus do in that scenario, and how will Pollard’s absence affect the selection of the backline group as a whole?
It’s something to think about as Pollard spends three weeks on the sideline. The Vodacom Bulls flyhalf sustained a calf injury in the match against the Brumbies and has since returned to South Africa. It’s believed that Pollard may have been rested for the remaining tour matches against the Blues and Highlanders, regardless of his fitness.
Pollard was the Boks’ first-choice flyhalf at the 2015 World Cup. He fought back from a couple of serious injury setbacks in 2016 and 2017 to make the No 10 jersey his own again in 2018.
There were some concerns around his goal-kicking last season. This year, however, Pollard has been on target for the Bulls, kicking at 81% and amassing 161 points – more than any other player in the Vodacom Super Rugby tournament.
Who will fill the void if Pollard breaks down this year?
Jantjies seems the obvious choice. A closer look at his recent performances, however, suggests that the Lions pivot still has a lot to prove.
Jantjies and Pollard impressed as a 10-12 combination during the latter stages of several Tests in 2018. There have been too few games over the past three seasons, though, where Jantjies has taken control as a starting No 10. Indeed, in the big games against New Zealand, England and Ireland, Jantjies has often been found wanting.
Still, it’s hard to see who Erasmus might favour over Jantjies at No 10 in the big games at the World Cup (in a scenario where Pollard is unavailable). South Africa isn’t exactly spoiled for choice in terms of experienced flyhalves.
Pat Lambie’s forced retirement may have scuppered Erasmus’ plans. As a player boasting 56 Test caps, as well as the ability to cover flyhalf and fullback, Lambie was the ideal candidate for South Africa’s utility back position at the global tournament.
That said, Erasmus did give Willemse game time at flyhalf and fullback last year, with the long-term view of taking the 21-year-old to the World Cup. The big question is whether Erasmus will start Willemse at No 10 if both Pollard and Jantjies are unavailable.
What are the other options?
Rob du Preez Jnr was used by Erasmus last year, coming off the bench in the first game of the season against Wales in Washington DC. It would make more sense to consider Curwin Bosch for the role, though, given that he’s starting regularly for the Sharks at present, has a formidable kicking and attacking game, and has the ability to slot in at No 10 and 15.
Bosch outplayed Jantjies in the recent fixture between the Sharks and Lions. He also impressed in the recent tour matches against the Waratahs and Crusaders.
It’s going to be interesting to see how Erasmus responds if Pollard misses the World Cup. Apart from Jantjies, Du Preez, and Bosch – all of whom played for the Boks last year – who else is capable of starting at flyhalf for the Boks?
Former Bok coach Allister Coetzee recalled Morné Steyn in 2016, and was rewarded for his faith when Steyn steered the Boks to a face-saving, yet unimpressive win against Australia in Pretoria. One doubts that Steyn is the answer, though, especially for a Bok team that’s started to find its mojo on attack.
Jean-Luc du Plessis has produced a mixed bag for the Stormers this season. Manie Libbok hasn’t impressed when he has been given the No 10 jersey at the Bulls. Shaun Reynolds is still trying to stake a claim for a starting spot at the Lions.
What are the Boks going to do if Pollard breaks down with a serious injury? It’s something that Erasmus needs to plan for in the coming Rugby Championship. While Pollard, Jantjies and Willemse need game time in that tournament, it may benefit the Boks in the long run if one of the fringe players is backed in the position of ultimate responsibility.
Pollard’s absence may also force Erasmus to rethink his backline selections for the World Cup.
Ideally, Pollard will travel to that tournament as cover for the No 12 position. The worst-case scenario will force Erasmus to pick two specialist inside centres, as neither Jantjies, Willemse nor Bosch has experience at that position at the highest level.
SPRINGBOK INJURY LIST*
|TRAVIS ISMAIEL||Wing||Shoulder||Late June|
|JESSE KRIEL||Centre||Ankle||Late June|
|PIETER-STEPH DU TOIT||Loose forward||Shoulder||TBC|
|SIYA KOLISI||Loose forward||Knee||TBC|
|DUANE VERMEULEN||Loose forward||Neck||TBC|
|WARREN WHITELEY||Loose forward||Knee||TBC|
|LOOD DE JAGER||Lock||Shoulder||Early July|
|BONGI MBONAMBI||Hooker||Thigh||Next week|
|THOMAS DU TOIT||Prop||Ankle||Next week|
|BEAST MTAWARIRA||Prop||Knee||Early June|
|AKKER VAN DER MERWE||Hooker||Shoulder||Early June|
*Players who featured for the Boks in 2018
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images