‘I can’t give enough credit to guys like Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux for the improvement to our attack,’ Handré Pollard told me in a recent interview for SA Rugby magazine. ‘They made the difference last season, both in terms of their experience and individual contributions.
‘Their decision-making is on another level,’ the Bok flyhalf added. ‘Willie has that X-factor and ability to create space for the guys on the outside. There’s still a lot of work to do before we go to the World Cup, but jeez, it’s exciting to be part of that setup at the moment.’
Indeed, the Boks are playing a brand of rugby that is both exciting and tactically effective. While Le Roux has made a difference at the back, the emergence of several exciting wingers has added another dimension on attack.
Former Bok wing Breyton Paulse believes that the key to success at the 2019 World Cup, however, will be the strength of the back-three unit rather than the potency of any individual.
‘The importance of that combination is often understated,’ Paulse told this website. ‘You need to be playing together regularly. You need to be on the same wavelength with your teammates.
‘I remember when I played alongside Pieter Rossouw and Percy Montgomery at the Stormers and Boks [in the late 1990s and early 2000s]. We got to know each other’s games very well. On game day, we knew exactly what the other guy was thinking.
‘That’s what some coaches get wrong,’ Paulse added. ‘They put three brilliant players next to each other in a back three, but the combo doesn’t gel. That combination has to be greater than the sum of its parts.
‘I was encouraged by what I saw in 2018, with Rassie trying to develop that brotherhood among the players. We’ve seen the back-three players gelling, although I feel like the best is to yet come.’
What is South Africa’s first-choice back-three combination? Last year, Erasmus backed Le Roux, S’bu Nkosi and Aphiwe Dyantyi to start the first Test against England. The combination changed over the course of the season, though, due to injuries and Erasmus’ drive to experiment a year out from the World Cup.
Curwin Bosch, Warrick Gelant and Damian Willemse were all used at fullback. Travis Ismaiel, Makazole Mapimpi, Cheslin Kolbe and Jesse Kriel were utilised on the wings.
At the moment, Le Roux looks set to travel to the World Cup as the first-choice fullback. Willemse – who started at No 15 against England at Twickenham last season and has been playing there regularly in the Vodacom Super Rugby tournament – looks set to cover flyhalf and fullback at the global tournament.
As seen by the list below, injuries are a part of rugby and there’s a strong chance that the Boks will go to Japan without several first-choice players. With that in mind, what is Erasmus going to do if Le Roux breaks down, and if Willemse is also unavailable?
While the first-choice combination needs game time in the upcoming Rugby Championship, it would serve the Boks’ long-term goals to start one or two fringe players in the back three. Going by how the Boks played last year, the player must be able to contribute in the attacking and tactical kicking department. Skill and composure under the high ball will be required in the tougher, tactical battles at the World Cup.
Bosch has excelled when given the opportunity to start for the Sharks at flyhalf this season. It wouldn’t surprise to see him getting a run at No 15 for the Boks in the Rugby Championship, though, as he’s in the same mould as Le Roux and Willemse – both of whom began their careers at flyhalf. Bosch’s formidable tactical-kicking game may also have caught Erasmus’ eye.
The Boks do have other fullback options, albeit few with the same skill set. Gelant has attempted to improve his kicking game over the course of this season. Aphehele Fassi is an exciting young player that hasn’t taken long to adapt to the demands of Super Rugby.
It will be interesting to see how Erasmus goes about managing his back-three group in the four Tests leading up to the World Cup, and in the final warm-up game against the Brave Blossoms in Japan.
Le Roux, as well as Willemse, needs game time alongside the preferred wingers. A third option, such as Bosch, may be worth exploring to ensure that the Boks have a further alternative in the event of injuries.
SPRINGBOK INJURY LIST*
|TRAVIS ISMAIEL||Wing||Shoulder||Late June|
|JESSE KRIEL||Centre||Ankle||Late June|
|PIETER-STEPH DU TOIT||Loose forward||Shoulder||Next week|
|SIYA KOLISI||Loose forward||Knee||Early July|
|DUANE VERMEULEN||Loose forward||Neck||Next week|
|WARREN WHITELEY||Loose forward||Knee||Mid-August|
|LOOD DE JAGER||Lock||Shoulder||Early July|
|BONGI MBONAMBI||Hooker||Thigh||Early June|
|BEAST MTAWARIRA||Prop||Knee||Early June|
|AKKER VAN DER MERWE||Hooker||Shoulder||Early June|
*Players who featured for the Boks in 2018