Cape Town – Scrumhalf Faf de Klerk must be giving the Springbok brains trust the strangest of headaches, to add to their several others, at present.
Quite superb for the most part in his earliest exposures to Test rugby during the series against Ireland and then at the outset of the Castle Rugby Championship against Argentina at Nelspruit, the little Lions No 9 has slumped to opposite-pole terrain more recently.
He was leading Bok on my Sport24 Test player rating cards for no fewer than three of his first four appearances in green and gold, including those critical, perhaps series-tilting late interventions – a spring-heeled intercept and then alert spot tackle – in the tense final encounter with the Irish in Port Elizabeth.
But his last three games for the Boks, all of them marked by defeat in the Championship, have sadly been pretty close to shockers, with his more mercurial qualities beginning to desert him and doubts very much deepening around his tactical acumen and defensive appreciation.
I gave De Klerk a 5/10 for his effort in Salta, 4.5/10 for Brisbane and the dubious “cherry on top” of 3.5/10 after first Aaron Smith and then substitute TJ Perenara rather ran rings around him in the 41-13 thumping from the All Blacks in Christchurch on Saturday.
It is painfully clear that the Boks need some sort of shake-up in the key nine-ten area, given that De Klerk’s franchise colleague Elton Jantjies has been more disappointing, when you weigh up all the Tests this season, than the scrumhalf has -- the pivot seems a likelier cull right now as he, unlike his partner, is yet to produce any single really champagne performance.
But coach Allister Coetzee did(unusually for him as a renowned conservative in selection terms) hint after the latest setback that fairly widespread alterations may have to be considered for the game against Australia in Pretoria in two Saturdays’ time, so De Klerk could also be on tenterhooks over his survival.
Perhaps if he has a more experienced, notable game-bosser just outside him – whisper it, Pat Lambie if deemed sufficiently ready? – at Loftus, the onus on De Klerk to make important decisions will be lessened and he might return to former effervescence playing in his natural way.
But if Coetzee is feeling especially uncharitable about the present state of affairs, perhaps an entirely new halfback combo will be assembled.
In that case, and unless the coach has an unexpected eye on someone outside of the current squad, the claims of Rudy Paige and Francois Hougaard for the berth are likely to be re-scrutinised in some earnest.
You have to feel enormous sympathy for Paige, so notably a peripheral figure in Bok squads – a situation that goes back to his meagre involvement in the RWC 2015 campaign.
He has four caps, all as a reserve, and this year has seen him just as fitfully employed as last: 11 minutes against Ireland in Cape Town and six against Argentina in Salta. Yes, that’s the sum of his Bok 2016 game-time.
How can the 27-year-old from Riversdale be expected to demonstrate his credentials - especially as he effectively gathers dust - if he is so negligibly deployed?
But if the Bulls man (among a handful of Bok players released on Monday for possible Currie Cup game-time) is overlooked once more, then versatile Hougaard, an international since 2009, may well be shifted back to the berth he remains most familiar with against the Wallabies.
The main drawback with moving him closer to the heat of the action from left wing, of course, is that he has actually been one of the more slippery and industrious-looking SA outside backs in both Brisbane and Christchurch, so a separate selection quandary is opened up over the vacancy if he does return to the No 9 jersey.
Whichever way you look at it, the spot is unhealthily fluid as things stand.
Mind you, it’s not the only Springbok one with that hallmark …
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