Bok scrumhalves: Rassie’s head-scratcher

Faf de Klerk (File)
Faf de Klerk (File)

Cape Town - You could almost call it “official” ... Faf de Klerk is quite firmly bedded down again as South Africa’s premier scrumhalf.

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The little Sale Sharks-based terrier has started all four of the more serious Tests, if you like, in 2018 thus far: the entire three-match series against England, and now the first Rugby Championship clash with Argentina in Durban last Saturday.

Expect De Klerk to be at his No 9 post once again, too, when the Boks play the Pumas in the immediate return fixture in Mendoza this weekend.

He is a lot closer to being part of the routine first-team fabric again, having pleasingly demonstrated, for the most part, that his stint in the English Premiership has improved his game management considerably, while not shedding him of any of his X-factor or sheer tenacity-based qualities.

His general tactical boot and box-kicking, in particular, were on the money a lot in the 34-21 triumph over the Pumas, and he was often enough at the fulcrum of try-generating Bok raids, too, as they achieved six of them at Kings Park.

The former Lions favourite notched the final one himself, and also showed excellent vision with the perfectly-weighted, double-skip pass he spun out on the blindside once - after giving the visitors the impression he was looking at “open” - for a simple corner touchdown by Makazole Mapimpi.

His cross-field punt had also teed up left wing Aphiwe Dyantyi’s well-taken second try where he reached over line in the nick of time.

De Klerk remains a bit short of flawless for overall generalship, occasionally on Saturday being absent from the base of breakdowns for desired rapid clearances, and misdirecting a pass or two.

He ain’t Fourie du Preez ... not yet, anyway.

Nevertheless his “comeback” - he earned his first 11 caps in 2016, before disappearing from the Bok radar throughout last year - has overwhelmingly been a feelgood one, and this at a time when national stocks in the position are notably low.

Certain dark clouds potentially loom, though: De Klerk could well be among the small group of overseas-based players in the current squad summoned back to their European stations at times during the remainder of the Championship, which is also when the games only get tougher, at least on paper.

In an instant, that would place a harsh spotlight straight onto the unenviable soul who would have to elevate in a major hurry from second-in-line scrumhalf to the main customer in a demanding berth.

And the trouble is, such has been De Klerk’s level of performance that head coach Rassie Erasmus has been largely disinclined to haul him off during Tests thus far, preferring to make his “impact” substitutions in other areas.

Just for example, Saturday’s reserve scrumhalf, the extremely raw Embrose Papier, got a nominal five minutes off the splinters at the end of the match - and even that wasn’t in his specialist berth, as he replaced a tiring, cramping Dyantyi out wide.

In the series-deciding second Test against England at Bloemfontein back in June, then back-up scrumhalf Ivan van Zyl earned just five minutes in De Klerk’s place, and seven in game one at Ellis Park, where the blond, starting No 9 had been particularly outstanding.

If there is any threat of De Klerk being stripped from the ongoing Championship plans at some juncture in the next few weeks, Erasmus may have to go a little against his understandable, pro-De Klerk instincts sooner rather than later - possibly even in Mendoza this Saturday? - and give the deputy (it will be either of Bulls franchise-mates Papier or Van Zyl) a more significant gallop so he doesn’t possibly start a higher-stakes match down the line unfairly “cold” to Bok strategies and moves.

Interestingly, the most experienced of the No 9s who are currently next in line to front-man De Klerk, Ross Cronje, was left behind for the Mendoza venture.

Does that mean Cronje is being cotton-woolled to some extent because the 10-capper’s services will be summoned for the brace of games against each of Australia and New Zealand?

At least the Lions player has better knowledge of various Bok methods than either of Papier or Van Zyl (the latter had an inconclusive debut in the dubious Washington DC Test against Wales, also featuring vastly different personnel at the time).

But if Cronje is not at the forefront of Erasmus’s thinking at present for next best option to De Klerk, then the other two really need to start getting more generous exposure.

Don’t they?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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