• Feature: Boks still boast plenty of backline options

    In the second part of this series, SA Rugby magazine breaks down the depth in the Bok midfield and among the halfbacks as the British & Irish Lions tour looms.

    Clive Woodward likes to tell the story of how the night before a game he’d list the two competing sides, writes CLINTON VAN DER BERG in the latest issue of our print magazine.

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    Continuing the theme, he’d pipe up at the team meeting that there was nobody he’d swap man for man, a shrewd ploy at boosting his players.

    Before a match against New Zealand once, he tried the trick, to which Will Greenwood shot his hand up and said: ‘Clive, we’re with you, but on behalf of all the team I think we’d happily swap Austin Healey for Jonah Lomu.’

    It harks back to the time Jake White said he wouldn’t choose a single Irishman over his Springboks, for which he was lashed, but you get the idea.

    And so it is with Eddie Jones; to a point. Asked if he would choose a single South African over his English crew, the England coach spat out a single name: Lukhanyo Am.

    ‘Best 13 in the world,’ is how Jones described him.

    Bang on.

    Outside centre

    If you were selecting a team to play Mars next week, Am’s name would be among the first on the team sheet. He is everything you want in an outside centre: fast, quick-thinking, inventive and cunning. He’s the heavy in the backline you don’t want to mess with.

    Assuming Am keeps his Rolls Royce body in good nick in the coming months, no one will usurp him from the Springbok outside-centre berth. There are a bunch of newcomers all looking to take a shot, but it’s like challenging Lewis Hamilton: you do so knowing that coming second is nailed on.

    The joy that comes with watching Am is that he blends his virtues with consistency, so while the Sharks might be getting banged up or the inside backs might be having a bad day, he’s always the model of consistency. It’s tough to get one over him.

    South Africa is blessed with several outstanding 13s, not least among them Jesse Kriel. Despite being just 26, he’s played 46 times for SA and is among the most dependent players on the Bok roster.

    A hamstring injury put paid to his hopes at the World Cup, but he’s since regained his form playing in Japan. His place in the Bok pot for the tour by the British and Irish Lions was given added poignancy when it was revealed in November that his great-grandfather John Hodgson had been a Lion 90 years ago. How he’d love to extend that legacy.

    Best of the rest

    Wandisile Simelane is closer than ever to a Springbok place. It’s just a matter of when.

    The Lions midfielder has lit up the domestic season by throwing his big body about while showing the soft, silky hands you’d expect of a flashy flyhalf. Just 22, the hot-running centre learned his rugby at Jeppe and has continued to grow along the way.

    Up the road, Stedman Gans has shone for the Bulls, his pace causing problems every time he turns out. Gans developed his game playing Sevens; his skills, pace and game management all strong features.

    Spare a thought, too, for William Small-Smith. He epitomises the heart and soul found across local rugby; always busting a gut, always doing his thing.

    Ruhan Nel, of WP, can certainly do a job at 13, while Jeremy Ward of the Sharks is an accomplished player who can mix it up in good company. The former SA U20 captain is learning at the shoulder of Am and looking all the better for it.

    Inside Centre

    The best inside centre playing in SA might be a long-in-the-tooth hack who once suffered a heart condition. Not to be unkind, but this description underlines just how improbable Cornal Hendricks’ journey has been.

    Now back at the Bulls after a period in the wilderness, he’s the meneer in the backline, an instinctive playmaker who creates opportunities where there are none.

    His time might have come and gone – he last played for SA in 2015 – but he’s a reminder of the extraordinary depth this country possesses at 12.

    Damian De Allende is the man in possession and although he is playing in faraway Ireland, he’s pulling up trees for Munster. The Irish club has gone on a tear-up in the Pro14 and De Allende has been at the heart of it with his hard running and smooth distribution. It will be difficult to break up his sweet combination with Am.

    Frans Steyn is determined to have a second crack at the Lions, having done so in 2009, and it’s not inconceivable.

    He’s older and slower, but also smarter, proving for the always gutsy Cheetahs just how valuable he remains. Steyn’s chassis has filled out in recent years, but he uses his bulk to bang away at the gainline and has developed a cultured kick-through that causes havoc. His utility value adds to his claims, so don’t bet on the 33-year-old being put out to pasture just yet.

    Best of the rest

    Andre Esterhuizen, Francois Venter and Jan Serfontein all have Springbok blazers. Any of them would do a fine job if they got the call.

    Serfontein played 35 times for the Boks, but somewhere along the way he lost the essence of what made him so magical as a youngster. Perhaps his subsequent years in France will help him reclaim his splendour.

    Burger Odendaal, meanwhile, continues to do yeoman work on the local circuit.

    Flyhalf

    As long as we are discussing flyhalf, it’s best to understand that it’s Handré Pollard and then the rest. Pollard put that issue to bed at the World Cup.

    In recent years, only two other 10s have threatened his primacy. Elton Jantjies is the best of them, surely the most consistent, most valuable player pound-for-pound in the domestic game.

    The Lions flyhalf has his critics, but Jantjies counters them by consistently producing excellence. Unflappable and blessed with the rare gift of time on the ball, he is exactly the type of insurance South Africa requires if Pollard gets banged up.

    Morne Steyn is another old stager who continues to show up the young pretenders, even at 36. There’s no chance he’ll chase down Pollard, but as a template for the coming crew, there are none better to look towards.

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    Fence-sitters can be forgiven for being undecided over Damien Willemse. He looks the complete package and yet …  there remains something missing. He’s evidently suffered from being played at 10 and 15, but flyhalf is where he appears most comfortable. 

    The one thing you require from a flyhalf is the ability to take a game by the scruff of the neck. But Willemse doesn’t do that. He has wonderful hands, runs cleverly and can kick, but the trouble is putting it all together. He’s young (22), however, and there is still time to graduate to backline general.

    The Sharks’ Curwin Bosch is also in the picture. He’s tiny and fearless, but SA’s record of playing small flyhalves is a limited, unflattering one.

    Former Stellenbosch player Chris Smith has begun to attract admiring headlines. Fast and unfussed, he’s been a slow burner but is coming good in Pretoria where he has the best mentor of all in Steyn. He’s also proved a master at banging over key goals, a vital consideration for a big-game player.

    Scrumhalf

    If it’s a case of horses for courses, SA has a stable bulging with contenders.

    Faf de Klerk is the man in the saddle, equally at home sniping around a loose maul as he is chirping a 2m tall lock. He earns his keep in Manchester these days and even though he’s endured a bout of Covid-19, he remains among the Premiership’s most astute buys.

    Of the rest of the Springbok No 9 triumvirate, Herschel Jantjies is still sniping away, sharp as ever. Not forgetting Cobus Reinach, who would be the No 1 choice most other places.

    Best of the rest

    Sanele Nohamba of the Sharks is a real comer, quick with his service and a potent, cheeky runner. It won’t be long before he gets a ‘please call me’ from Jacques Nienaber.

    Ivan van Zyl, meanwhile, is dependable and darty, but he’s in a long queue that also includes teammate Embrose Papier and Morne van den Berg, the Lions playmaker who is earning rave reviews.

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    Craig Lewis