Cape Town – He falls short of being everyone’s cup of tea, but Ruan Pienaar seems the most likely, immediate beneficiary of Fourie du Preez’s Springbok injury setback.
It was confirmed by the Boks on Monday that the Japan-based Du Preez will miss the next four to eight weeks with a medial knee ligament injury, picked up in training with his Suntory Goliath club a few days back.
A quick mathematical exercise tells you that if the 33-year-old recovers on the rosier side of that prognosis, he might be able to squeeze in some activity in the two Tests against Argentina (one at the end of the Castle Rugby Championship in Durban on August 8, and the other a non-tournament additional fixture away a week later).
But if he requires the full eight weeks for recovery, then Du Preez is only going to return to green-and-gold duty in time for the start of the World Cup; they begin their pool journey against Japan in Brighton on September 19.
What is certain now is that he sits out the two most critical Championship matches against Australia (away) and New Zealand on SA soil in the condensed tournament, which would have been particularly fitting examinations of his ongoing suitability to top-level rugby after many months of first-class idleness -- even before the latest blow.
So in the shorter term, the Boks have to find a suitable alternative at No 9: the Sharks’ Cobus Reinach is the incumbent, if you consider that he wore the jersey in the 12-6 loss to Wales at the Millennium Stadium at the end of last year.
But the six-capper – all of them earned in 2014 – is currently among a 13-strong “rehab” squad just beneath the able-bodied party of 36 named by coach Heyneke Meyer at the weekend.
So Reinach seems unlikely to be in a position to open the Bok season when they tackle a World XV at Newlands on July 11.
That leaves Meyer for the time being, then, with the options of Pienaar – easily closest to Du Preez for pure Test experience and game-management style – plus rookie squad call-ups Rudy Paige (Bulls) and Faf de Klerk of the Lions.
There is the chance, assuming Reinach remains a no-go for the moment, that he may take the daring, experimental step of fast-tracking either of the uncapped Super Rugby 2015 standouts, but it is difficult to look beyond 80-cap Pienaar as likely favourite for the job.
The Ulster-based customer, 31, can be a frustrating presence at times for the Boks, as he has a fairly languid style and somehow gives the impression that he could clear the ball more smartly in times of major need.
But his kicking game and all-round footballing acumen is as well-established as that of Du Preez and his several years of nous picked up in northern hemisphere conditions stands him in good stead for European autumn involvement for the Boks, come the World Cup.
Pienaar last started for South Africa in the tight 14-10 defeat to the All Blacks in Wellington last year – he succumbed to injury just before halftime – and when the Boks avenged that loss 27-25 in the Johannesburg follow-up, Francois Hougaard was the starting scrumhalf.
The versatile Hougaard, however, has been pointedly snubbed by Meyer after a disappointing Super Rugby campaign with the under-achieving Bulls.
You have to think, like it or not, that most signs point to Pienaar at No 9 for the next few weeks ...
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