Meyer’s flyhalf conundrum

Handré Pollard and Pat Lambie will both feature at the 2015 World Cup. The big question, even at this late stage, is which of the two will start at No 10, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Heyneke Meyer has some tenure-defining decisions to make in the lead-up to the World Cup. Meyer will name his 31-man squad for the tournament on 28 August, and there are bound to be a few surprise inclusions and, inevitably, one or two shock omissions.

What could be more interesting, and ultimately more significant in terms of the Boks’ chances of winning the Webb Ellis Cup, is Meyer’s decision regarding the No 10 position.

If both are fit, Pollard and Lambie will travel to England as Meyer’s flyhalf options. The Bok coach will, however, have to take past and recent events into account when deciding who is the better bet to start the big matches.

Meyer has used four flyhalves in a starting capacity over the past four years. Morné Steyn has started the most Tests for South Africa during this period (21). Pollard has started 10, Lambie eight (at flyhalf), and Johan Goosen two.

The Boks have won 67% of their matches when Steyn has started, and 50% of their matches when one of Pollard or Goosen has worn the No 10 shirt. South Africa have enjoyed an 88% success rate when Lambie has been handed the starting flyhalf responsibilities.

What may encourage Meyer to back Lambie at a World Cup staged in England, is the player’s Test record in northern hemisphere conditions. Between 2012 and 2014, Lambie started at flyhalf in eight of the 10 Tests staged in Europe. The Boks won on seven occasions.

Steyn has a perfect record (two from two) in Europe during this time frame. Pollard started against Ireland in Dublin last year, and battled to prevent a 29-15 loss.

Of course, the performances of the team on each of those 10 occasions must be taken into account. The Bok pack was particularly dominant on the 2013 tour to Europe, and thus the flyhalf’s job was made easier.

In the match in Dublin last November, the Bok forwards were humbled by a hungrier Irish eight, and Pollard was placed under pressure as a result. The very next week in London, South Africa delivered a typically abrasive forward performance. Lambie benefited from that platform, and steered the Boks to a significant win over England.

There have been times over the past four years, at Test and Super Rugby levels, when Lambie’s ability to control a contest has come into question. And yet when you look at his overall record, as well as his strong tactical and goal-kicking performance against Argentina this past Saturday, you’d have to say his chances of starting at the World Cup are good.

Good, but by no means guaranteed. Pollard has produced some game-breaking performances over the past 12 months. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has said that the Boks are a less predictable opponent when Pollard is directing traffic at No 10.

It would also benefit the Boks to include Steyn in their 31-man squad. As the 2011 World Cup showed, a team needs quality in depth, particularly in the No 10 position. New Zealand lost Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden to injuries over the course of that tournament. It fell to the All Blacks' fourth-choice pivot, Stephen Donald, to kick the winning penalty in the final.

What will influence Meyer’s final decision is the availability of several other players. The successful World Cup teams of the past have enjoyed a blend of youth and experience. The best combinations have boasted a good balance in terms of skills.

This year, much has been made about Pollard, Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel as a 10-12-13 combination. However, the stats reveal that the inexperienced trio has proved susceptible on defence.

Ideally, Meyer would start at least one veteran in the midfield in order to bolster the backline defence. The return of Fourie du Preez at scrumhalf would also strengthen the Boks’ tactical kicking, and possibly alleviate the pressure on someone like Pollard at No 10.

We will know in the next 12 days whether players such as Jean de Villiers, Du Preez and Frans Steyn will be available for the World Cup. What is encouraging is that all three of South Africa’s best flyhalves should be fit for the tournament.

Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images

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