Will Frans Steyn replace Damian de Allende as the preferred starting inside centre at the 2019 World Cup? JON CARDINELLI investigates the Springboks’ No 12 options.
The Springboks will travel to the World Cup in Japan with two good options in the flyhalf and outside centre positions. It remains to be seen, however, who coach Rassie Erasmus will back at No 12 and whether a second inside-centre specialist will make the final squad of 31.
There’s been little consistency in selection over the previous three Test seasons. Allister Coetzee chopped and changed his starting lineup during the dark days of 2016 and 2017. Erasmus made it clear at the start of his tenure that he intended to experiment with individuals and combinations. Ultimately, six No 12s and five 13s have started over a period of 40 Tests.
As many as 12 combinations have been trialled as the coaches searched for the right balance in midfield. Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel started together in eight Tests during this period, while Damian de Allende and Kriel started in seven. No pair has started more frequently since the beginning of the 2016 season.
Injuries and issues around availability have prevented Erasmus from exploring further options. He has had his eye on Serfontein and Frans Steyn – who start together regularly for Montpellier in France – for some time. Lukhanyo Am would have added to his starting tally – and perhaps developed a stronger partnership with incumbent No 12 De Allende – if not for a season-ending injury sustained in September 2018.
There’s still time for Erasmus to experiment in the truncated Rugby Championship and the two friendlies against Argentina and Japan. SA Rugby magazine considers the answers to the inside centre question.
THE INCUMBENT: DAMIAN DE ALLENDE
The 1.91m, 101kg Stormers centre has all the physical gifts. When his forwards have set the necessary platform, he’s used his speed as much as his power to punch a hole through the defence.
However, De Allende has too seldom served as a link between his 10 and 13. Rarely has he put his outside man into space, or looked for support after breaching the gainline.
While he remains a talented and potentially crucial attacking player for the Boks, it remains to be seen whether he will address these issues before the World Cup.
Erasmus needs the big man to find form soon as there is a dearth of experienced 12s based in South Africa at present.
BRUISING ALTERNATIVE: ANDRE ESTERHUIZEN
Esterhuizen cuts an imposing figure at 1.94m and 110kg. It isn’t hard to understand why the Sharks and Boks have used his powerful carrying abilities, as well as his prodigious boot, whenever a contest has called for a more pragmatic approach. Another thing that may count in his favour is his midfield partnership with Am at the Sharks.
It’s early days in Esterhuizen’s international career, though, and we’re yet to see him really dominating the gainline to the point where he shapes and wins games for the Boks.
One gets the feeling that Erasmus will only include Esterhuizen in the World Cup group in the event of an emergency. He failed to impress in the recent game against Australia, and may not get another starting chance in the buildup to the global tournament.
COMPLETE PACKAGE: FRANS STEYN
Steyn has won everything there is to win on the international stage. His attacking vision, thumping defence and long-range goal-kicking ability helped the Boks prevail during the golden age of South African rugby between 2007 and 2009. Whether he started at No 12 or fullback, Steyn proved himself a man for the big occasion.
So why hasn’t Steyn featured more prominently for the Boks in recent years? There have been issues around his availability since he first moved to Europe in 2009.
Erasmus has made it clear that he wants a man of Steyn’s skill and experience on board. The Montpellier-based player was named in the Bok squad ahead of the three-Test series against England last year. He never featured in that series, though, because SA Rugby and Montpellier failed to come to an agreement regarding his release from the French club.
Steyn has since returned to the Bok squad. Is there enough time to integrate the player into the new systems? With so few quality inside centres at his disposal Erasmus would do well to explore the option of Steyn at No 12 in the Rugby Championship.
Steyn made an impression when he came off the bench against the Wallabies last Saturday. Surely he will get a start sooner rather than later.
FORGOTTEN MAN: JAN SERFONTEIN
It wasn’t too long ago when Serfontein was hailed as one of the stars of a much-improved Bok side.
In early 2017, Serfontein featured prominently in the 3-0 series win against France and in the subsequent victories against Argentina. He wasn’t considered for the end-of-year tour to Europe, though, due to his move to Montpellier.
The Boks certainly missed his crack decision-making and breakdown skills on a challenging four-Test sojourn.
Serfontein contracted a mysterious illness while abroad. After a long search for answers, doctors discovered that the centre had a tumour on his femur. He made a full recovery, but had to wait until the latter part of 2018 to resume playing.
By all accounts from those on the ground in France, Serfontein has lost none of his edge. His experience of playing in Europe has sharpened his skills and he could certainly add value – be it at 12 or 13 – in Japan.
THE UTILITY OPTIONS
Could flyhalves Elton Jantjies and Handré Pollard feature in the same backline combination?
Last year, Erasmus answered the question when he used both 10s in tandem in the latter stages of several Tests. Jantjies came off the bench to assume the flyhalf responsibilities, while Pollard moved from 10 to 12. Together, Jantjies and Pollard offered the Boks more attacking and kicking options.
Erasmus faces some tough calls ahead of the World Cup squad announcement in August and some of the players named in the 31-man group will be asked to cover more than one position. Pollard has been identified as a player who can cover 10 and 12. In the event of an injury, the first-choice flyhalf could start at inside centre.
In a recent interview with SA Rugby magazine, Bok assistant coach Mzwandile Stick suggested that Am will also be considered for the inside-centre duties.
Stick described Am as a great footballer with a sharp rugby brain. He went on to say that Am’s vision and decision-making could boost the Boks from that position.
ALL BLACKS SPOILED FOR CHOICE
The No 12 position is a big point of debate in New Zealand at present. Sources close to the All Blacks have suggested that a big name – more specifically, a two-time World Cup-winner – may not make the final squad of 31.
Ryan Crotty has slotted in at 12 and 13 for the All Blacks since the 2015 World Cup. Sonny Bill Williams, when fit, has made a big impact with his direct approach and off-loading game.
Ngani Laumape – the form No 12 in this year’s Super Rugby tournament – and Jack Goodhue look set to make the midfield cut.
Ma’a Nonu, who returned to New Zealand this year from Toulon with the aim of making the World Cup squad, is likely to miss out. The 37-year-old centre may yet feature if there are one or two injuries in the lead-up to the global tournament.
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