The lack of Test-quality depth at No 9 remains a major concern for the Springboks less than two years away from the next World Cup, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
In 2016, Faf de Klerk started nine Tests for the Boks, while in the other three encounters of the year, Rudy Paige wore the No 9 jersey.
However, this year De Klerk dramatically fell out of favour before taking up a contract with the Sale Sharks, and the Boks opted instead to install Ross Cronjé as their first-choice halfback.
Cronjé has been the right man for the job at this time, with his general reliability making him a safe bet, but the fact remains that he is yet to truly take control of a Test as a match-winning halfback.
Undoubtedly Cronjé has his limitations, but a greater concern should be the fact that the Boks still have such limited options in this key position.
On three occasions when Cronjé was unavailable this year, the Boks opted to start Francois Hougaard, and yet he was eventually dropped, with Allister Coetzee suggesting that he had battled to meet the technical requirements for a Test-quality scrumhalf.
Meanwhile, Paige continues to receive limited opportunities off the bench, while journeyman Louis Schreuder is currently providing cover as the third scrumhalf in the squad.
This has been the sort of sad, ongoing saga in South African rugby as the search continues to effectively find a suitable long-term successor for Fourie du Preez, who had seamlessly assumed the No 9 baton from the late, great Joost van der Westhuizen.
During the 2015 World Cup year, Du Preez and Ruan Pienaar wound back the clock to do duty at No 9, but these two stalwarts have now called time on their international careers.
Meanwhile, at the end of 2014, it appeared that Cobus Reinach could be the man to step up to the mantle after starting three Tests on the end-of-year tour, but he is now plying his trade in England after SA Rugby allegedly dragged its heels in preventing his move to the Northampton Saints.
Ultimately, the fact that South African rugby remains devoid of world-class scrumhalf options is an issue that should not be swept under the carpet. All the great teams in world rugby over years gone by have generally had one thing in common, and that is a high-quality halfback general capable of running the show.
Think of George Gregan, Justin Marshall, Will Genia and Aaron Smith, to name just a few of the modern era, while the Boks have been blessed by the presence of Van der Westhuizen and Du Preez.
However, the pickings have been slim over the past few years. To illustrate this point, since the conclusion of the 2011 World Cup (which is when Du Preez intimated it was time for a newcomer to step up in the No 9 role), there has been a relative revolving door at scrumhalf.
Over the past five years, Pienaar primarily started as the Boks’ first-choice scrumhalf, despite being based abroad, but Du Preez also started in 12 Tests, while there have been opportunities for Francois Hougaard (11 starts at scrumhalf), De Klerk (nine), Reinach (three) and Jano Vermaak (one). Cronjé has now started eight Tests this year.
Fast forward to the present, and the Boks’ options are still extremely limited. Cronjé and Paige will be 30 years old at the next World Cup, but who is there beyond that?
Former Junior Springbok Marco Jansen van Vuren is certainly one exciting youngster who is highly regarded, while the Bulls’ Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier are two other talented players to look out for.
Yet the 2019 World Cup is now approaching at a rapid rate, while the question marks that remain over the Boks’ halfback depth continue to point to a prevailing problem in terms of SA rugby’s succession planning.
And at a time when Du Preez has retired from all forms of rugby, every effort should be made to ensure that this legendary Bok scrumhalf is contributing to the coaching, development or at least identification of the next best successor.
In the here and now, though, it remains a considerable concern that there is no clear-cut answer to the Boks’ No 9 depth dilemma.
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