Coetzee’s halfback headache

The majority of South Africa’s halfbacks are still no match for their New Zealand counterparts in the departments of decision-making and execution, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The All Blacks have won seven of their last eight Tests against the Springboks. That record is a testament to New Zealand rugby’s superior domestic system, culture and mental strength.

It’s going to take something special for the Boks to break the stranglehold and win more than they lose over the next four years. Recent results, of course, won’t inspire confidence. Collectively, the South African teams have lost seven of the eight games played against Kiwi opposition in the first half of the 2016 Super Rugby tournament.

It was interesting to hear Allister Coetzee’s take on the All Blacks at a recent media briefing in Johannesburg. The newly appointed Springbok coach moved to allay concerns over a number of issues. Coetzee said that the Boks will be ready for the three-Test series against Ireland in June. Come the subsequent Rugby Championship, the Boks will be ready for the All Blacks. According to Coetzee, the No 1 side on the planet for the past six years is not a team to be feared.

And yet even Coetzee admitted that the South African game plan needs work. The new coach spoke about injecting some speed into the existing approach. At the same time, he highlighted the positions of No 9 and 10 in a more balanced strategy. The decision-making as well as the execution of South Africa’s halfbacks need to improve if the Boks are to challenge the All Blacks in 2016 and beyond.

Eight rounds into the new Super Rugby season, and a number of New Zealanders have already made their mark in this department. There’s been the Chiefs halfback pairing of Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden, not to mention a bright young prospect in Brad Weber. The Highlanders boast the best No 9 in the world in Aaron Smith, as well as another Test flyhalf in Lima Sopoaga.

The list goes on. TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett from the Hurricanes. Andy Ellis and Richie Mo’unga from the Crusaders. Even the worst-placed New Zealand side, the Blues, features a slick operator in Bryn Hall at No 9.

The Kiwi scrumhalves and flyhalves have performed at an exceptionally high standard. The quality of the decision-making and execution has had a positive influence on the brand of rugby these teams have played, and in many instances the results they have obtained.

The standards in South Africa are unfortunately not as high, and Coetzee will have fewer genuine Test options when the season commences in a couple of months’ time. Indeed, while many have praised the performances of Elton Jantjies – and he has been influential for the Lions on attack and with the tactical boot – few have pointed out the dearth of expert decision-makers in the South African game.

The Boks are thinner at flyhalf than most are willing to admit. First-choice No 10 Handré Pollard has already been ruled out for the remainder of the season. Pat Lambie should return to action soon, and could feature in the series against Ireland. However, another injury to either Jantjies or Lambie in the buildup will place Coetzee and the Boks in a precarious position.

There is perhaps an even greater concern at scrumhalf. The great Fourie du Preez, who won every title on offer with the Bulls and Boks and ultimately revolutionised the role of the modern No 9, has confirmed his retirement.

Does South Africa really have another decision-maker and tactician of his quality waiting in the wings? What can the past eight rounds of Super Rugby tell us about Du Preez’s successor? Who has the greatest claim to the position of responsibility?

Rudy Paige travelled to the 2015 World Cup as the Boks’ third scrumhalf. At the end of the tournament, Du Preez told SA Rugby magazine that Paige had the potential to be a fine tactical scrumhalf. Sadly, that prediction is yet to come to pass. Paige has been disappointing for the Bulls in 2016. His most recent performance against the Reds lacked energy and accuracy.

When the 2015 World Cup squad was announced, some wondered why Cobus Reinach was considered surplus to requirements. And yet Reinach has failed to prove the selectors and critics wrong in the 2016 Super Rugby tournament. It doesn’t bode well that Michael Claassens has been preferred when the Sharks have needed a more tactical No 9.

What of the other candidates? The Stormers have won five from seven but their scrumhalves have been less than consistent. Some might say that the Lions’ Faf de Klerk is the obvious choice for the Boks, but in what capacity?

A less explosive player in Ross Cronjé has been preferred in the Lions’ crunch matches against the Sharks and Stormers. De Klerk has proved a fine impact player in the second half of these fixtures, but can he be counted on to play the Aaron Smith or Fourie du Preez-type role? Can he control a game from the outset? We’re yet to see any evidence of this at Super Rugby level.

These are the questions that Coetzee and company will need to ponder in the buildup to the series against Ireland. In fact, they should already be looking further to the Rugby Championship. They should be looking to groom a new No 9 and 10 for that all important tournament.

Jantjies has been the standout thus far. Disappointingly, no other South African halfback has performed at the same standard or with such consistency. Again, it bodes badly for a Bok side that wants to play a game that hinges on the sharp tactical decisions of its halfbacks.

Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images

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