Cape Town – A spell in midfield for Handre Pollard, which might also be of benefit to the Springboks, is one option Bulls head coach Pote Human may wish to consider as he reluctantly prepares for life without Jesse Kriel for virtually the rest of Super Rugby’s ordinary season.
It has been confirmed, in what represents a significant blow to their onward aspirations for the 2019 campaign, that established international outside centre Kriel will miss six to eight weeks of activity as he requires surgery to the ankle he hurt against the Stormers at Newlands on Saturday.
What that also means is that even in the bright-side, earlier-leaning scenario of a mid-June return, it is the Bulls’ final game of ordinary season: at home to the Lions in a Highveld derby on June 15.
Only the knockout phase remains after that, assuming that the Bulls – still to negotiate a four-match Australasian tour beforehand, remember – still have interest in the competition by then.
At least the 25-year-old, 40-cap Springbok should be fully fit again (and unintentionally well rested) very comfortably in time for the Test opener of the year against Australia in the Rugby Championship at Emirates Airline Park on July 20.
For the next few weeks, though, the Bulls have got to find a most suitable method to compensate for his absence from the No 13 jersey; he has been one of their most consistently reliable back-liners in the initial part of the season and added some improved dimensions to his play, like a heartening peripheral awareness to accompany his more renowned personal skills.
Kriel will definitely miss, it seems, this string of matches at a pivotal phase of the Pretoria team’s roster: Waratahs (home, this Saturday), then Crusaders (home), Rebels (away), Brumbies (away), Blues (away) and Highlanders (away), though perhaps with an outside chance of sneaking into the mix for that last-ditch Lions crunch.
The Bulls have lacked genuinely “big name” depth in midfield ever since former SA under-20 star Jan Serfontein abandoned local climes to join the burgeoning migration to northern climes (Montpellier in his case) some two years ago, so there’s some thinking to do in terms of how to plug the hole and still correctly balance the midfield alliance.
At least one feasible, emergency solution would involve asking Pollard, who is also their acting captain and an assured, staple presence at flyhalf, to move one berth wider to No 12, and asking current inside centre Burger Odendaal – another valued, pretty senior figure – to occupy No 13 instead.
It would then mean a potential run of games, if he were to make a good fist of it, for hugely talented but sometimes unpredictable Manie Libbok, 21, in the key No 10 shirt: he would certainly benefit from having Pollard’s tactical acumen and calming influence immediately outside of him.
Pollard, while understandably still massively favoured at ten, is increasingly employed later on in matches at inside centre – including for the national team, whenever Elton Jantjies is introduced, for instance, off the bench.
He has the repertoire of requirements for the slightly wider channel, including decent physical gifts at 1.88m and some 98kg.
But then what about Odendaal’s suitability to the outside centre slot?
Also arguably more suited to No 12 given his own muscularity, height and defensive awareness, Odendaal does have some solid, successful enough mileage at thirteen, including for a spell in 2017 at Currie Cup level where he led the troops and later earned the valued mantle of Players’ Player of the Year at the annual awards at Loftus.
He is in his fifth season at Super Rugby level and has accumulated enough knowledge to be able to be versatile in the competition.
But coach Human and company will also chew on additional midfield options like Dylan Sage, the former SA Sevens star, and Johnny Kotze, the industrious, fire-in-the-belly former Stormers man who tends to operate more as a wing these days but has had plentiful high-level exposure slightly further infield.
A wildcard possibility at No 13 would be Warrick Gelant, the Springbok fullback who is picking up a nice head of steam in this year’s Super Rugby in the last line of defence; they may be rather more inclined to leave him where he offers best value.
But Gelant has an acclaimed all-round footballing game and sometimes the most devilish of footwork to suggest he could be a surprise package in the position if such a bold switch were to be made.
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