No South African-based scrumhalf has advanced their Springbok cause, leaving Fourie du Preez as the most likely selection for the mid-year Tests, writes RYAN VREDE.
This was the season I thought Cobus Reinach would come through as a serious contender for the Springbok No 9 shirt. In the infancy of his career he appeared to possess the raw skill set that would grow and refine into one possessed by a Test scrumhalf. In 2013 there were signs of maturation, however, on the evidence of his performances this season, he hasn't developed at the pace I would have expected and still appears to need longer under Jake White's tutelage before being a genuine contender.
Reinach and Stormers scrumhalf Louis Schreuder were both part of wider Springbok training groups in 2013, but Schreuder has fallen even further down the line than Reinach, thanks largely to his team's struggle to impose themselves in any facet of their attacking game. They vary in degree of struggle but remain fine players, both possessing an X factor that Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer has spoken about glowingly in informal discussions.
There is a chance Reinach will grow into the player I envision him being over the course of this season, a season likely to test and hone his temperament (a quality that often separates solid Super Rugby players from Test potential ones) in the play-off rounds. Schreuder faces a more difficult ascent to the Springboks if his side continues its diabolical run of form. Meyer may well look beyond his current struggle and see him as a product of his environment. If that is indeed the case, Meyer will have the confidence that the Springbok environment could bring the best out of Schreuder. Still, he is a rank outsider in this discussion.
The main focus of any piece debating contenders in this context must, however, be Francois Hougaard. His form has improved over the past month largely because it appears he has been let off the Bulls' restrictive leash. By this I mean they've seemingly abandoned the strategy of forcing Hougaard into a Du Preez-shaped mould and allowed him to play to his strengths, which doesn't include tactical kicking. Certainly he still operates within a fairly rigid framework and is still required to put boot to ball fairly regularly, but being allowed greater expression has observably benefited him.
Hougaard was contracted to the Springboks earlier this year, which indicates Meyer still rates him highly. However, my understanding is that he sees him primarily as a wing – the position his best performances at Super Rugby and Test levels have come in – and as an option at scrumhalf only should he been required there. Meyer's view may change, but the Springboks' game plan relies heavily on a scrumhalf with a strong tactical-kicking game and it is unlikely that Hougaard will improve this facet of his play to a level that makes him a suitable replacement for Du Preez.
The master scrumhalf continues his career with Suntory in Japan but showed no signs of his powers waning in the 2013 Rugby Championship. He was often the fulcrum around which the Springboks' challenge revolved. Du Preez will remain the incumbent for the 2014 season. Meyer sees his skill set and experience as being invaluable in their quest to bump the All Blacks from the summit of the game's rankings. Nothing he's seen from the South Africa-based nines would have forced him to reconsider this view.
It is also likely that Ruan Pienaar will continue to be Du Preez's understudy. The former Sharks man continues to deliver high quality performances for Ulster with mechanical regularity. In interviews with his team-mates and coaches one common theme has endured: Pienaar is the type of player who needs to constantly feel loved and appreciated by his team and its supporters and backed by his coaches. There is no shortage of any of these things at Ulster and that is reflected in the quality of his showings. Meyer is acutely aware of what Pienaar requires from a man-management point of view and is equipped to get the best out of his appreciable talent.
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