Springboks: Ruan Pienaar banging on number nine door

2012-08-21 00:00

CAPE TOWN — For how much longer should Ruan Pienaar be curtailed to the role of Springbok “supersub”?

It is a question likely to be weighing as much on the mind of coach Heyneke Meyer and his lieutenants as it doubtless is already for plenty of observers.

The Ulster-based Pienaar, a former Sharks favourite, has been a patient but also highly effective substitute in all Springbok Tests thus far in 2012.

Scrumhalf tends to be a position occupied by a livewire athlete, one often less likely than others to see the incumbent hauled off well before the end of matches if things are going suitably well for him.

Perhaps tellingly, however, Pienaar has been introduced with at least 20 minutes to go — and occasionally a fair bit more — in all four matches, including the trio against England.

The trick was duly repeated in the latest instance on Saturday, when Pienaar got another “last quarter” in the moderately satisfying triumph over Argentina in the Castle Rugby Championship, at the usual expense of first-choice Francois Hougaard.

The last-named player did get to see out the fixture at wing, a position where he has often been at his most incisive for his country before — and arguably was so again.

Hougaard is a naturally slippery, electric runner and there is a mounting case for saying he demonstrates it best when there is a bit more space available in raids from the back of the park.

Indeed, with the mercurial, in-form JP Pietersen inconveniently absent for the first two-thirds or so of this tournament, perhaps Hougaard is as equipped as anybody to show some alternative X-factor from out wide in broken-play situations.

Consideration of Hougaard for a wing berth, in the immediate follow-up game against the Pumas in Mendoza on Saturday, could lead to a win-win situation for both current rival number nines, opening up a rather obvious gap for Pienaar to try to raise the bar for the Boks as starting scrumhalf.

Frankly, Hougaard has under-delivered there this year, even if his broad talent and supreme tenacity as a rugby player is hardly in doubt.

He struggles to genuinely take command of games at scrumhalf in the manner his legendary Bulls predecessor Fourie du Preez once did, with his tactical kicking aspect remaining unremarkable and his passing sometimes overly laboured.

Pienaar, who has been getting such rave reviews in Ireland and wider European competition since his switch to northern climes, just seems so much more “natural” in the slot of late.

Isn’t that an important consideration in a team currently, let’s face it, not massively renowned for cutting-edge backline play?

He is in the prime of his pro rugby life, at the age of 28 and with 55 international caps to his name, only bearing out his wisdom.

Hougaard is four years his junior and still has time on his side to iron out certain rough edges to his number nine game — unless his admirably versatile credentials do yet lead to his more regular stationing at wing.

Right now, he is not quite the Full Monty at Test scrumhalf.

Pienaar warrants an opportunity to wear a certain, single-figure number on his back for a change, doesn’t he?

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