Cape Town – Considering the retirement after some 11 years’ service of the sheer, all-round genius who was Fourie du Preez, the Springbok 2016 season started deceptively well in the scrumhalf position, didn’t it?
Faf de Klerk, still riding the crest of the Lions’ appealing wave in Super Rugby as the competition took its now-customary break for the June Test window, quickly looked the business as new kid on the block.
He shone in at least two of the three Tests as occupier of the Bok No 9 jersey for the first time against Ireland, including bits of last-ditch defensive heroism and alertness that arguably swung a very tight series 2-1 the host nation’s way in the decider at Port Elizabeth.
De Klerk was again strongly to the fore when the national side opened the Castle Rugby Championship with a come-from-behind 30-23 triumph over Argentina at Mbombela, his devilish inside pass to Johan Goosen teeing up a critical, gee-up try.
But then the rot set in, not just for the Springboks collectively, but at scrumhalf just as severely … a trend that would not properly alter for the remainder of Allister Coetzee’s turbulent maiden year in charge.
De Klerk’s form and assertiveness nosedived along with the Boks’ Championship title “chase” – you could barely call it that, as they ended third of the quartet of participants – and the winless end-of-year tour was simply the nadir.
Along the way, De Klerk was put out of his misery as first-choice at times, his limitations as a game controller and suitably wise option-taker exposed.
In short, rough edges to his play became all too apparent, with opponents not slow to notice; he became ever more error-prone and overly frantic.
So Coetzee revisited Rudy Paige, the Bulls customer who had had such fleeting opportunities off the “splinters” at the 2015 World Cup, when Heyneke Meyer was pilloried for his desperately economical use of him.
Instead, by the time 2016 ended, it only began to look uncomfortably as though there had been some method to Meyer’s apparent madness just a year or so earlier: Paige only looked more ponderous and ineffectual than we had all hoped, while a few switches from a starting berth of wing to scrumhalf by Francois Hougaard similarly did not yield great returns at all.
You could say the instability only continued when Piet van Zyl earned a 15-minute call to arms off the bench in place of De Klerk, who was struggling anew when the Boks closed the season in pretty typical fashion, losing 27-13 to ho-hum Wales at the Millennium Stadium.
Van Zyl is a talented attacking player, but he also doesn’t yet do an awful lot to help change the perception that South Africa currently has too much of a headless-chicken syndrome in the key scrumhalf berth, with tactical gumption and calmness in worryingly short supply.
But there is a shaft of light … or at least the likely infusion to the present, pretty unsettled Test contenders at No 9 this year of a mildly “forgotten man”: the Sharks’ Cobus Reinach.
There was an outcry, especially from KwaZulu-Natal, when Reinach failed to make the cut for the World Cup squad in 2015 after 10 prior caps – though seven as a substitute -- beginning in the 2014 season.
The now 26-year-old had made three starts, and at least two of them were pleasing ones during the northern hemisphere tour at that year’s end; he featured prominently in the nail-biting 31-28 victory over England at Twickenham and 22-6 disposal of Italy in Padova – both of them opponents the Boks so messily lost to on their latest Euro sojourn a couple of months back.
His passing and tactical-kicking game had earned particular plaudits from some of the Bok coaching team during that 2014 trek, which went a good way to explaining the indignation when he failed to make the RWC cut the next year.
But then the nippy Reinach’s crusade to prove the decision ill-judged in Super Rugby 2016 came to a shuddering halt when he sustained a dreaded anterior cruciate knee ligament injury against the Highlanders on April 22 – the premature end of his rugby year.
He has reportedly rehabbed well, and is ready to hit the ground running – even if re-establishing his optimal, renowned pace off the blocks may take just a bit longer – for the Sharks’ opening fixture against the Reds in Brisbane on February 24.
The Durban-based franchise have a far kinder tournament draw this year (last year’s was positively brutal) and that may assist in some way, too, to Reinach picking up form and confidence fairly quickly.
A fit and firing Reinach by mid-year would be excellent news for the Springboks … and not only because the existing cupboard of No 9s is looking unremarkable.
He has proved before that he can cut it at the highest level, regardless of who his main rivals are.
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