Rassie Erasmus should include a third specialist scrumhalf at the expense of a back-three option in his 31-man World Cup squad, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The scrumhalf position has been a big talking point over the past two seasons. At the start of 2018, the Boks didn’t have one clear option, let alone three who could be trusted to start at the World Cup.
Yet here we are, less than two weeks away from the World Cup squad announcement, and all the talk is about who Erasmus should leave behind.
The conversation has progressed to the point where many are calling for a third option – Cobus Reinach – to remain in South Africa while Faf de Klerk and Herschel Jantjies travel with the 31-man group to Japan. Already we’ve seen another top side in England opting for two rather than three scrumhalves in the final World Cup squad.
Should Erasmus follow Eddie Jones’ lead, though?
Former Bok coach Nick Mallett was criticised a while back for suggesting that Cheslin Kolbe may be better utilised at scrumhalf for the Stormers and possibly the Boks. In the Test against Argentina in Salta this past Saturday, we saw Kolbe moved to scrumhalf while De Klerk was in the sin bin. By all accounts, Kolbe did a good job to vindicate Mallett and strengthen the call for two rather than three scrumhalves in the final World Cup squad.
If De Klerk breaks down during the warm-up ahead of the All Blacks game in Yokohama, for example, Jantjies will come into the starting lineup. Kolbe will provide cover in the event that Jantjies succumbs to injury during the match.
Do the Boks need to take such a gamble, though?
What if Jantjies were injured inside the first 10 minutes? Would Kolbe offer the Boks the same tactical options with the boot? Would he offer the same slick service from the base of the ruck? Would he stand up in that position on defence?
These are the questions the opposition may be asking as the debate around Erasmus’ World Cup selections continues to rage. So much of a team’s performances hinges on the options taken by a scrumhalf at Test level, especially in the big matches. Kolbe, with next to no experience in that position at the highest level, would quickly become a target.
What also needs to be considered is the problem the Boks would face if, say, De Klerk or Jantjies sustained an injury that ruled them out for a few games but not the entire tournament.
In that scenario, the player might remain in camp until he is fit to feature in the latter stages of the campaign. Erasmus would not be able to call for a replacement unless an injured player was completely ruled out of the tournament.
In other words, if De Klerk broke down against the All Blacks, and was sidelined for two to three weeks, the Boks would go through the remainder of the pool phase with just one specialist scrumhalf in their squad.
If Jantjies picked up a niggle in the subsequent game against Namibia, then the Boks would be forced to start Kolbe against Italy and even Canada. It wouldn’t be ideal, especially if the Boks needed to win those matches in order to qualify for the playoffs.
Why take the risk? Is it really worth trying to squeeze another back-three player into the mix at the expense of another scrumhalf?
The Boks are blessed with players who can offer options in more than one position. Willie le Roux will travel to Japan as the Boks’ premier fullback, and one wonders if Erasmus really needs another specialist such as Warrick Gelant in the group.
Frans Steyn can cover flyhalf, both midfield positions and fullback. Kolbe has been impressive for the Boks on the wing over the past two seasons, but would not be out of place at fullback. In 2015, Jesse Kriel was touted as the next big thing at No 15, yet eventually focused on the No 13 position.
There’s space in a 14-man back division for three scrumhalves, two flyhalves, four centres, four wings and one fullback. If Aphiwe Dyantyi doesn’t come through a barrage of fitness tests in the coming weeks, however, Erasmus may have room for Gelant after all.
Damian Willemse looks set to make his return for Western Province this weekend. Last year, Willemse was viewed as the second-choice fullback and the third flyhalf option.
It remains to be seen if Willemse will make the final cut of 31, though, after suffering a big injury setback with the Stormers and missing the entire Rugby Championship.
Photo: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK