Cape Town - Ross Cronje’s general levels of experience should see him advance to the forefront of Springbok scrumhalf plans if Faf de Klerk is absent or only sporadically available during the looming end-of-year tour.
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Media reports from England earlier this week have suggested that there has been some sort of quid pro quo between the Bok management and Sale Sharks over the unrelenting usage of De Klerk in the Rugby Championship.
While De Klerk will again be available for the tournament closer against New Zealand at Loftus on Saturday, it seems the flip side of the “deal” will be the former Lions favourite staying with his Premiership club side during the four-game European tour.
The Boks play England at the start of the trek (ahead of the official Test window, on November 3), and then France (November 10), Scotland (November 17) and Wales (November 24).
Arrangements between SA Rugby and overseas clubs over the use of Bok players can be delicate and sometimes fluid, so it may be premature to suggest that De Klerk, who has been very central to head coach Rassie Erasmus’s plans in 2018, is eliminated entirely from contention for the tour calendar.
But if he plays even a watered-down role in the venture, the Boks will be forced - and up to now the game-time has been hugely monopolised by De Klerk - to start thinking with much more urgency about alternative choices at No 9.
The other three scrumhalves in Erasmus’s extended squad at present are Cronje, plus the altogether more rookie Embrose Papier and Ivan van Zyl.
But the first-named player in that group, 29 years old and holder of 10 Bok caps (all starts) - he also sports experience of Super Rugby finals for the Lions - seems likeliest next candidate from the pecking order if, or whenever, De Klerk is ruled out during November.
How Erasmus decides on his scrumhalf may be determined to some extent by prevailing weather conditions on the tour - branded as “autumnal” in Europe but often less benign than that might sound - for specific games.
But the pitches may generally be slow and heavy, and Cronje’s game-management acumen could come into its own under such circumstances; he is not the zippiest, most lethally sniping of No 9s the world has ever seen but he would bring a certain calmness and direction to the Bok party.
De Klerk’s admirable, near-manic levels of energy, gutsy defensive willingness and undoubted X-factor would be missed, but he also has a tendency to waste too many box kicks and take over-hasty or wrong options at times, hallmarks often less likely from Cronje.
The seasoned figure also has the benefit - above both Papier and Van Zyl - of prior Test exposure in European climes.
Cronje made all four starts on the corresponding tour at the end of 2017, the dying embers of the Allister Coetzee coaching regime.
The Boks won two of those internationals (France and Italy), while losing to Ireland and Wales.
Cronje’s deputies on the bench were Rudy Paige for three of the Tests, and Louis Schreuder for the closing one in Cardiff - both of those players have fallen by the Bok wayside in 2018.
Some critics have understandably been calling for the Boks to pin some renewed faith in Cobus Reinach, now based with Northampton Saints, but Erasmus has not shown any inclination to go that route during the current Bok year, and his availability, as an abroad-based recipient of his bread and butter, might also contain certain difficulties.
There may still be an outside chance of a Currie Cup scrumhalf leaping to the potential Bok limelight in the remaining weeks of the domestic competition, although time is running short for that.
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