Cape Town – Sorting out that ever-problematic scrumhalf arsenal … the job’s not quite ticked off yet by Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus as he weighs up World Cup year.
Sale-based Faf de Klerk remains fairly entrenched as the first-choice No 9 whenever available, and is becoming reassuringly experienced at all levels: he is 27, well-travelled and holder of 21 Bok caps at this point.
That tally should have swelled a bit further by the time South Africa open their RWC 2019 account against arch-rivals New Zealand at Yokohama on September 21.
But the back-up situation remains more blurry, with a tight tussle between the likes of Embrose Papier, Ivan van Zyl, Louis Schreuder (Sharks) and possibly another overseas-based player, Cobus Reinach of Northampton, for extra berths in the Bok squad next year.
Reinach has been dormant at Test level since 2015, but if the nippy former Sharks star keeps excelling in club activity in the northern hemisphere he may yet crack the World Cup nod at the expense of one of the others.
In that respect, resumption of the in-house tussle at the Bulls shortly between Papier and Van Zyl becomes especially relevant in Super Rugby 2019.
Just based on the limited weight of their respective opportunities at Test level this year, it is probably safe to say that Papier has nosed ahead in the specific duel.
While Van Zyl, over the course of six appearances (two starts), provided a tidy enough service at times and was noticeably willing and committed on track-back defence, he provided no special cutting edge in the influential position, either.
That was where 21-year-old Papier, who turned out seven times in the green and gold – also with two starts – almost certainly demonstrated superior credentials.
With De Klerk unavailable for the last two end-of-year tour clashes, against Scotland and Wales respectively, the Clanwilliam-born former SA Schools and U21 scrumhalf had the rare phenomenon for him of successive, near full-length rugby matches.
While the Murrayfield game ended in victory and the Millennium Stadium one in defeat, Papier generally ticked the boxes for personal performance.
Perhaps educatively for the Bulls as well, he linked up extremely well with Handre Pollard as the “nine and ten” alliance against the Scots, where both were extremely influential in the 26-20 outcome in SA favour.
But the pair had also operated as a unit all too seldom for the Bulls in their bumpy 2018 season when, under John Mitchell’s short-lived head coaching charge, Papier only started three of 16 Super Rugby matches.
By contrast, Van Zyl enjoyed eight appearances in the run-on XV and the other scrumhalf in the Loftus frame, Andre Warner, got five.
Clearly Mitchell seemed to think both Van Zyl and Warner were better “game managers” than Papier, overlooking his more mercurial qualities much of the time.
It will be interesting, against that backdrop, to see whether the new regime of Alan Zondagh – a former No 9 himself and the director of rugby – and, perhaps more importantly, head coach Pote Human are prepared to give Bok incumbent Papier a better run as first choice in the berth in 2019.
The player’s quest to excel on the highest stage, after all, was hardly helped earlier this year by just how little first-class exposure he had behind him, meaning he must have struggled at times to muster best sharpness and perhaps even necessary durability for the task … he is one of those players all too used to the “splinters”.
Papier, Van Zyl and Warner look like remaining the main three Loftus-based scrumhalves at the outset of Human’s Super Rugby tenure, and many of the long-suffering faithful at the ground will probably be rooting for a Papier-Pollard combination immediately behind the scrum when they open their 2019 account against the Stormers (in Pretoria) on February 16.
It could be very much in the national interest.
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