ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE explores the options the Springbok coaches have at inside centre ahead of the upcoming B&I Lions series.
The Incumbent: Damian de Allende
For the longest time, De Allende was a polarising figure in South African rugby. When he first burst on to the domestic scene fans were taken aback by his powerful carrying ability complemented by some silky footwork and a robust defence. Springbok honours were inevitable.
His career in the green and gold, however, was met with less enthusiastic praise. While no one could deny his ability going forward, it was felt De Allende had become predictable, lacking an ability to distribute and being all-round too one-dimensional.
It took until the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan for De Allende’s eminent abilities to shine through. He was possibly the Springboks’ standout player at the tournament and were it not for his superb solo scoring effort against Wales, the Boks may never have made it to the final.
De Allende is a set-piece weapon for South Africa – he generates critical first-phase momentum and with the resulting quick ball the Boks have a platform to attack from. Fans who criticise him as one-dimensional need to understand that this is his prescribed role on attack for the Boks; one which he executes immaculately.
On defence, there are none better than ‘Doogz’ in the No 12 jersey. His physicality means opposition are afforded no purchase when attacking his channel (something the Boks’ blitz defence often forces them into doing). Handre Pollard affectionately refers to De Allende as a ‘space alien’ but insists there is no better player at making defensive reads –high praise, indeed.
Mix in a counter-rucking ability that most loose forwards would be proud of, an ability to compete at the breakdown and a not-insubstantial right boot, and what you have is the complete centre.
Since De Allende’s move to Munster he has been less in the spotlight than what South African fans are accustomed to. Make no mistake though, De Allende is as potent as ever. He’ll be difficult to dislodge from the starting jersey.
The Powerhouse: Andre Esterhuizen
Esterhuizen may count himself among the most unlucky players not to have won a Rugby World Cup. His exclusion from the 2019 squad was an agonising one for the Springbok coaches. The former head of athletic performance, Aled Walters, is on record as naming Esterhuizen as one of the hardest-working, most improved and ultimately most unfortunate players to miss out.
It is without surprise that since the World Cup exclusion Esterhuizen has played rugby like a man possessed. No player seems as hell-bent on making the squad for the Lions series. The big centre was playing the best rugby of his career in early 2020 at the Sharks and has carried that form forward to his new club Harlequins. Since joining Quins, he has been quite literally at the centre of everything positive about their play.
At 6′ 5″ and 115kg it’s no secret what Esterhuizen’s most obvious strength is. He has always been a thundering ball-carrier and his collision success percentage is one of the highest of all players (never mind backs) in the Premiership. He’s beaten 30 defenders so far this season and it hasn’t been by running around them.
Less discussed, however, is Esterhuizen’s handling. Not only is he a top-class distributor with both hands (and particularly adept at making pinpoint long passes) but he has demonstrated time and time again an ability to execute some deft offloads too. His combined ball- carrying menace and silky handling skills make him the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove.
On defence, Esterhuizen’s massive tackles have become a feature of his play – much to the delight of his fans and teammates. Though he at times looked to be grappling with the Springbok defensive system when he last played for South Africa, he is a better player now than he was then. With sufficient time he would not look out of place.
One ace that Esterhuizen has up his sleeve is his well-adjusted kicking game. He offers the Boks a siege-gun left boot capable of clearing the ball 50-plus metres (especially at altitude) but also a subtle ability to poke through grubbers and chips. Having Esterhuizen and Pollard operating in the same backline offers the Boks a left-right-foot combination to round out their kicking game.
As a similar player to Damian de Allende, the Springbok coaches face an either/or situation. The two men are the frontrunners poised to go toe to toe for the 12 jersey.
The Veteran: Frans Steyn
The evergreen Steyn is a difficult player to categorise. His versatility perhaps makes it unfair to pigeonhole him as an inside centre. Nevertheless, this is probably the position he is most suited to and most likely to appear in for the Boks.
Given his propensity to play at flyhalf and fullback, it should be of no surprise that one of Steyn’s defining features is an ability to distribute from first receiver. While the other names on this list may be perfectly capable in their own right, Steyn remains a cut above.
The 33-year-old has proven to be an important cog in the Cheetahs attack this season. Whether at 10 or at 12, much of the play has been directed through him. Steyn has shown all his experience in marshalling his backline and plenty of guile in picking options and putting players into space.
This is not to say, however, that the big man hasn’t been perfectly capable of creating his own space. Age has done little to dampen his attacking intent and Steyn remains a fearsome ball-carrying option. In this year’s Currie Cup he topped the list of players with the most carries (40).
Neither has Steyn shown any indication that his trademark kicking prowess has diminished. He finished as the top points-scorer in the Currie Cup (73), regularly slotting 60m penalties with alarming ease. His accuracy from distance may make Steyn a valuable asset to have for the Boks when they face the Lions in what is sure to be a series of tight encounters.
In the end, Steyn’s versatility is likely to dictate the role he plays for the Boks. Rassie Erasmus’ Bomb Squad proved that rugby is a 23-man game. In order to continue picking six forwards on the bench, the Springbok coaches need to be certain that they won’t be thin in the backline in the event of an injury.
Frans Steyn’s ability to cover flyhalf, centre and fullback makes him the perfect solution. Although many Cheetahs fans will want to see Steyn starting for the Boks, the fact remains he is likely to be most effective in the Bomb Squad.
The Comeback Kid: Cornal Hendricks
Hendricks has one of the most inspiring stories in South African sport. After being told he would never play rugby again owing to a heart condition, Hendricks has made something of a miracle comeback. The fact that he is not only playing rugby again but playing the best rugby of his career is a remarkable achievement.
Many queried when Jake White decided to move Hendricks to inside centre from the wing, but the positional switch has proven to be a masterstroke. Hendricks (doubtlessly through shedloads of hard work behind the scenes) has taken to the centres like a duck to water and has been carving up the SA domestic scene ever since.
The Vodacom Bulls superstar is a beautifully balanced player. While Hendricks may not boast the bulk of the other names on this list, his other attributes more than compensate. The chief tradeoff for size is mobility and Hendricks remains one of the most elusive backline players in South Africa.
His ability to step off his left foot and accelerate into space has been the genesis of scores of line breaks. One on one, there are many defenders he has made to look silly. A career in sevens and on the wing means Hendricks knows the way to the tryline better than most. He boasts a lethal finishing ability to boot.
There is something wonderfully reminiscent of French player Gael Fickou (another who routinely plays at both centre and wing) about Hendricks. Both players are dangerous with ball in hand and as likely to beat defenders with their footwork as with their power.
After Hendricks’ consistently imperious performances for the Bulls this season, no one could argue he doesn’t merit inclusion in the Bok squad. On the international scene where defences are tighter and time is restricted, it could be sink or swim for Cornal Hendricks but with Springbok experience, though, there is no reason to believe he couldn’t complete a fairytale comeback to international rugby.