CAPE TOWN – For all the flak the Super Rugby competition – or at least the quality and competitive element thereof – has copped in recent years, the 2019 edition will be a key one, for World Cup reasons, of course.
While most coaches by now have at least a fairly good idea of the make-up of the outfit they want to unleash onto rugby’s biggest stage later this year, there is still some time for players to play themselves onto the selectors’ radar.
Springbok director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has said the selection door is still ajar for World Cup bolters, and with five Tests remaining before the Japan spectacle – including the truncated Rugby Championship and friendlies against Argentina and Japan – there is certainly still time for players to make the 31-man cut.
And while there are a number of South African players who should relish the opportunity to prove themselves, one player who doesn’t have a lot of proving to do is Lukhanyo Am. The Sharks midfielder was a pleasing sight in their home win over the Blues at the weekend. But his touches were nothing new.
Instead, it was a continuation of everything he has done over the last couple of seasons to announce himself as SA’s form outside centre.
Bulls midfielder Jesse Kriel is perhaps the only local centre who can cast doubt over where Am should feature for the Boks come the World Cup – in the starting XV or off the bench – particularly taking into account the experienced centre pairing he has formed with Damian de Allende over the years.
Erasmus could of course go an entirely different route in midfield with the likes of Jan Serfontein and Frans Steyn not out of the frame.
Maybe Erasmus pens Am down as his No 13 anyway. Maybe he’ll go with Kriel. Or maybe he’ll pull an overseas-based rabbit out of the hat and mix things up properly by going for somebody like Juan de Jongh. Who knows. Regardless of who gets the first-choice nod, you would have to get the injury demons to intervene to rule Am out as the most-deserving contender.
Am’s rugby IQ, which he so often uses to spot and exploit gaps that sometimes only his eyes can detect, along with his seemingly innate ability to pick superb running lines, make him special. And so does the fact that he can go from a fine finisher to a physical player who doesn’t shy away from contact situations to the ultimate creator at No 13. Am is unpredictable like that. And how about all the touches in between… like his support play, his distribution, and the occasional ball-poaching?
Sure, Am’s organisational brain can still be developed. He’s not yet the complete defensive lynch pin. But that’s exactly it – it can be worked on.
Kriel, though, is an out-and-out athlete, and that can never be a bad thing. But has he done enough in terms of creating opportunities for his outside backs – an aspect that shouldn’t go to waste considering the arsenal the Boks have in that department? Has he checked every outside-centre box, to move to the top of Erasmus’ No 13 options? Can he get the Bok backline to fire like Am has shown he can?
Only time will tell which midfield combination Erasmus will entrust with the honour and massive duty that is World Cup representation.
But if Lukhanyo Am continues to use his time with the Sharks as well as he has until now, the only midfield choice Erasmus has to make is who gets to start alongside him at No 12.