Versatility value: Best of the Springboks’ utility options

With the British & Irish Lions series on the horizon, DYLAN JACK looks at the players whose ability to play more than one position could boost the Springboks.

The nature of this year’s series could bring a rise in the importance of utility players. It has been reported that the tour could be held in two separate bio-bubbles – in Gauteng and the Western Cape.

When one looks at the 2009 Springbok squad that previously faced the Lions, it was only Frans Steyn, Ruan Pienaar and Danie Rossouw who could play three positions. Right now, 16 of the 31-man 2019 RWC squad could cover at least two positions and Jacques Nienaber could potentially select seven players – including Steyn and Pienaar – who have the ability to rotate between three positions.

Asterisked players (*) missed out on selection for the 2019 World Cup, but could force their way into contention for this year’s Test series.

Three-position players

Frans Steyn: centre, flyhalf, fullback

One of two players who previously faced the Lions in 2009, Steyn’s versatility was a key element in the 2019 World Cup, insomuch as it allowed Rassie Erasmus to name a six-two split between forwards and backs without compromising on an out-and-out flyhalf replacement. The 33-year-old (34 when the Lions tour rolls around) has been in excellent form for the Cheetahs, where he has mostly played at inside centre.

Damian Willemse: fullback, flyhalf, centre

Willemse’s versatility has been a bit more of a hindrance than a blessing at a local level, as he has constantly shifted between flyhalf and fullback without being able to settle in either position. However, it is something that could enhance his chances of being selected for the Lions series, especially if he manages to find his best form in the upcoming Rainbow Cup, now that he has committed his future to the Stormers.

Cheslin Kolbe: wing, fullback, flyhalf

Barring injury, the in-form Kolbe will likely retain his place in the Springboks’ starting lineup. That he has made shifting between wing, fullback and even flyhalf, look so easy will only make his selection even more certain.

Jesse Kriel: centre, wing, fullback

Kriel looked set to play Steyn’s utility role at the 2019 World Cup, before injury ended his tournament. The majority of his 46 Tests have been played at centre, but he has also played a handful of Tests on the wing and has domestic experience at fullback.

Willie le Roux: fullback, wing, flyhalf

The incumbent Springbok fullback will likely continue in this role during the Lions series. Le Roux did start his Springbok career on the wing, where he could play if the Boks encounter a massive injury crisis, but his creativity would also allow him to play at No 10 – where he has domestic experience – if needed.

Jean-Luc du Preez*: flank, No 8, lock

He may have missed out on selection for the 2019 World Cup, but Du Preez has been among the in-form South Africans at Sale Sharks. While most recognise him as a loose forward, Du Preez has added a handy ability to play lock to his arsenal.

Ruan Pienaar*: scrumhalf, flyhalf, fullback

It is not only Pienaar’s 88 caps of experience that make him an interesting proposition for the Lions series. Even though the 37-year-old last played Test rugby six years ago, he has Test rugby experience at both scrumhalf and flyhalf, while he also played in the 2007 World Cup at fullback.

Two-position players

Fullback/wing: Warrick Gelant, Aphelele Fassi*, Gio Aplon*, Dillyn Leyds*, Tyrone Green*, Sergeal Petersen*

Unsurprisingly, this is an area where the Springboks have plenty of options to consider. Gelant was part of the 2019 squad, but Fassi, Aplon and Petersen could all be knocking on the door with their domestic form. Meanwhile, Leyds and Green have made the most of overseas moves and should also be considered.

Centre/wing: Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, Wandisile Simelane*, Cornal Hendricks*.

As a point of interest, the centre pairing who started in the 2019 World Cup final – De Allende and Am – can both play on the wing if needed, even if they don’t have too much Test experience in this regard. However, when one thinks of a centre/wing, the obvious thought is Hendricks, who has successfully converted to the Vodacom Bulls midfield. Equally, the uncapped Simelane has this value, even if he is at his best in the No 13 jersey.

Flyhalf/centre: Handre Pollard, Robert du Preez*

Pollard, the incumbent flyhalf, pretty much stands alone here, as his size and carrying ability makes him a good option at 12. The oldest Du Preez brother has also recently been playing in midfield for Sale, but his inconsistent performances make a call-up unlikely.

Flank/No 8: Duane Vermeulen, Kwagga Smith, Siya Kolisi, Dan du Preez*, Marcell Coetzee*, Sikhumbuzo Notshe*, Jasper Wiese*, Arno Botha*, Nizaam Carr*, Ruan Ackermann*

Given how South Africa generates loose forwards, there are so many to consider here. Vermeulen and a revitalised captain Kolisi will surely be part of the squad, but there is a position available due to Francois Louw’s retirement.

Flank/lock: Pieter-Steph du Toit, Franco Mostert, Eben Etzebeth, Willem Alberts*, Rynhardt Elstadt*, Jannes Kirsten*, Jason Jenkins*, Cobus Wiese*

Du Toit, Mostert and Etzebeth were all part of the 2019 squad. Depending on RG Snyman and Lood de Jager’s fitness, there could be a couple of spaces open, one of which could go to a player who can double at loose forward and lock.

Loosehead/tighthead: Thomas du Toit, Coenie Oosthuizen*

Given how ‘swing props’ have gone out of fashion due to 23-man squads, there aren’t too many to consider here. The obvious name that comes to mind is Du Toit, who has shifted between loosehead and tighthead. Oosthuizen is the only other available player with this kind of experience at Test level.

Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

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Dylan Jack