DURBAN – Coaches agree that it takes about four rounds of Super Rugby before you can get a handle on which teams are on form, and the same goes for individual players.
Super Rugby 2019 is now in its fifth week, and Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus will have taken note as to who is hot and who is not as he settles on “the 20 percent” of his World Cup squad that remains undecided.
If we look at the potential Bok backline alone, what has Erasmus learned this year?
Well he will probably feel that there is great news at No 10, encouraging news at 9, healthy competition at 13 and a bit of a worry at 12.
The back three? There is just so much scorching speed in South Africa that the wings will never be a concern. Raw talent stacks up, so much so that incumbents Sbu Nkosi and Aphiwe Dyantyi are not guaranteed their spots. They know they are in a fight with the likes of Cheslin Kolbe, Makazole Mapimpi, and even wildcards Rosko Specman and Sergeal Petersen.
At fullback we know that Willie le Roux will command the starting jersey, but what Erasmus needs is for Warrick Gelant and Damian Willemse to step up their games for the Bulls and Stormers respectively.
To be fair to Gelant, he is still coming back from a long-term injury, and Willemse is not yet fully accustomed to fullback, but the fact is that right now there is a big gap between them and Le Roux, and you don’t want to go to the World Cup with (in any position) a significant gulf between the player starting and the rest.
Injuries most certainly will happen. Just one example: In 2011, the All Blacks started the World Cup final with their fifth best flyhalf, Stephen Donald, who had been summoned from a fishing trip on the Waikato River to play in the final.
Speaking of flyhalf, the Bok options are looking excellent although Erasmus will agree that he does not bat down all the way to five, as the All Blacks did in 2011. Not even close. But what the Bok coach does have is a flyhalf in the form of his life.
Handre Pollard is living up to his potential for the Bulls after two seasons of serious injury. The manner in which he has controlled the game in wins over the Stormers, Lions and Sharks has been majestic.
Last year, Erasmus experimented with Pollard moving to No 12 and Elton Jantjies coming on at 10, but so far in Super Rugby, Pollard has shown that he must be at 10 from start to finish.
Jantjes was very good in the Lions’ win over the Jaguares last week. He is stepping up. What Erasmus now needs is for both to stay injury free and for Jantjies to be consistent in his form. In a build-up to a World Cup, he can’t be hot and cold as he has been in recent seasons.
Like fullback, scrumhalf has an obvious overseas starter in Faf de Klerk. And what is pleasing is how Embrose Papier and Ivan van Zyl have played in a happy Bulls team – both have shown major improvement from last year.
Which bring us to centre. There is vigorous competition at outside centre between Lukhanyo Am and Jesse Kriel. It is what Erasmus will want. Two in-form players going head to head for the jersey.
In rounds one and two, when the Sharks forwards were going forward, Am was sensational with his deft touches in the outside channel, creating tries for his wings. He can’t be harshly judged for going relatively cold in the Sharks’’ matches against the Stormers and Bulls, because he got static ball from a defeated pack.
Kriel, playing behind a resurgent Bulls pack, has hit his straps and last week against the Sharks showed that he can play the offload game. His game has stepped up to a new level.
But inside centre is the one area in which the Boks are potentially vulnerable.
South African rugby just does not have a play-making No 12, sad to say.
Damian de Allende has not been at his best this year; and his rival Andre Esterhuizen is much of a muchness.
SA currently has no finesse at No 12, and this is one position where Erasmus can afford to be bold in changing tack at this 11th World Cup hour.
The answer to the Boks’ inside centre weakness is Jan Serfontein, the 25-year-old in such good form for Montpellier.