Rumours that Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux may return to their respective English clubs during the Rugby Championship have highlighted the lack of depth in the Springbok backline, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Would the Boks have beaten England in the recent series if not for the contributions of the overseas-based players? Probably not.
De Klerk and Le Roux amplified the team’s attack. Duane Vermeulen’s leadership was telling when a predominantly inexperienced group of players had its back against the wall.
The Boks will be without Vermeulen for the duration of the Rugby Championship. The No 8 will only be available to the national side when it tours Europe in November. Vermeulen will spend the intervening four months in Japan.
Recent reports suggest that two more indispensables, De Klerk and Le Roux, will rejoin their respective clubs in England before the end of the Rugby Championship. One would hope that there is more substance in the Bok management team’s denials than in the media reports.
The Boks can’t afford to lose two of their most experienced backs at this point. The lack of world-class, established scrumhalves and fullbacks in South Africa is well documented.
However, it would be naive to dismiss those reports entirely given what has transpired in recent years. Overseas clubs have long exploited the South African rugby situation and will continue to do so in future.
World Rugby’s Regulation 9 is meant to guarantee the availability of club players to Test teams during the designated international windows. It is rarely enforced, though.
SA Rugby wants access to the top South African players in Europe and Japan, players who are earning far more abroad than they could ever hope to earn at home. The respective clubs don’t want to lose those players for the full duration of the Rugby Championship or the end-of-year tour to Europe, though. And so, an agreement is often reached whereby the players in question are released for a limited period only.
During Heyneke Meyer’s four-year tenure, senior players like Schalk Burger, Fourie du Preez and JP Pietersen often missed specific Rugby Championship and end-of-year tour clashes due to overseas club commitments. While the Boks boasted more quality in depth in those days – Willem Alberts and others offset the loss of Burger, while Ruan Pienaar deputised for Du Preez – the situation was far from ideal.
Consider how much tougher things are now, with the Boks wanting for two or three established options in certain positions and lacking experience across the board.
Centre Jan Serfontein, the star of the series against France in June last year, missed the four-Test tour to Europe due to an agreement with his club Montpellier. Then coach Allister Coetzee bemoaned the situation, as well as the ongoing issues surrounding Frans Steyn’s availability for the Boks.
Some have suggested that the exclusion of overseas-based players will spare the Bok coach and SA Rugby these types of headaches. It wouldn’t improve the team’s chances of winning, though.
The Bok coach, who is under pressure to produce results, must utilise all the resources at his disposal. It would be counterproductive to ignore the players based abroad, many of whom have been contracted by the top clubs because they are among the best in the world.
Vermeulen, De Klerk and Le Roux all played a major part in the series win against England in June. The Boks would be in a stronger position on the eve of the all-important Rugby Championship if all three – as well as a few others based in Europe such as Serfontein and Steyn – were available.
The Boks are well stocked for hooker options at present. They don’t possess a No 8 in the mould of Vermeulen, though, and if De Klerk and Le Roux are recalled by their clubs – or succumb to injury – the backline could be in trouble.
Ross Cronjé struggled to adapt to the demands of Test rugby last season and was exposed in the latter stages of the recent Super Rugby playoffs. Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier are exciting young talents, but both have a lot to learn in terms of game management.
Erasmus has talked up the talent of Damian Willemse, and how the 20-year-old may prove a useful alternative to Le Roux at fullback over the course of the Rugby Championship. The best coaches will tell you, however, that it’s better to blood a youngster alongside a veteran than in a less experienced combination.
Van Zyl, Papier, André Esterhuizen, Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi and Aphiwe Dyantyi all made their Test debuts in June. While Willemse has the talent to succeed at this level, one wonders if the player will flourish in such an inexperienced lineup.
Steyn won the 2007 World Cup at 20, but he did so while playing together with backs such as Du Preez, Butch James, Jaque Fourie and Percy Montgomery. Flyhalf Handré Pollard played his first Test against the All Blacks at the same age, but had Du Preez on his inside and Jean de Villiers on his outside.
The Boks may find themselves in a difficult situation if Le Roux is unavailable and Willemse has to start against the Wallabies and All Blacks in Australasia. Fielding at least one veteran in the back three is a must, considering that the All Blacks are likely to test the South Africans with the high ball as well as that characteristic kick-pass to the wings.
The Boks may surprise if De Klerk and Le Roux remain available. Expectations should be tempered, however, if the South Africans head Down Under with a back division stacked with international rookies.
Photo: Gordon Arons/Gallo Images