Jaco van der Westhuyzen’s shares have gone up in his absence because of the mediocrity of South Africa’s other international prospects.
In a weekend of Vodacom Super 14 woe, an alarming aspect was the inability of SA’s flyhalves to dominate a game and to shut it out. Derick Hougaard was the exception because his kicking kept his team in the game. The platform was never there for him to drive home the advantage.
The two most disappointing performances, by way of their approach in the final 20 minutes, belonged to Meyer Bosman and Peter Grant. Both are young and, depending on who you chat to, both are contenders for the Bok squad.
But both failed on the fundemental of flyhalf play, which is to be the conductor and dictate where the game gets played and how it is played.
Let’s start with Bosman. His team reduces a 10 point halftime deficit to lead by four points with eight minutes to go. Free State’s pack is the stronger, but the conditions are making handling difficult and there is huge risk of conceding penalties at the breakdown because of interpretation.
Instead of playing out the match in the Sharks 22 and letting them play the risk rugby to get the five pointer needed to overhaul the four point deficit, Bosman opted on a running game. It lead to mistakes and the first one was punished with a penalty. Then Free State, through a game plan of keeping the ball in hand, and a flyhalf who still did not put boot to ball, but opted for a pass either to the outside man or back to a forward, put themselves under huge pressure, in their own half.
Twice they were penalised at the tackle, both times the result of having conceded turnover ball when trying to work phases in their own half. Both times the Sharks kickers (Pienaar and Montgomery) missed with shots at goal that would have won the Sharks the game.
It was naive rugby from the Cheetahs conductor.
Grant was as culpable of not taking the game by the collar and dictating. With the Stormers 20-7 up, they still played the same way. There seemed to be no natural feel from Grant to play more intelligent rugby, which does not mean boring rugby. The Grant who started the game was no different in approach to the Grant who finished the game. He was a link more than the boss.
The influential flyhalves, past and present, control games. We saw it with Mehrtens, but not Spencer and that is why one played 70-odd tests and the other 30-something. We see it with Dan Carter and Johnny Wilkinson was the master of shutting out the opposition once the scoreboard had given England comfort early on in a game.
We don’t see it in South African rugby, which implies we don’t have a player with the natural kicking and running game of a Carter, Mehrtens or Wilkinson in the competition at present.
Andre Pretorius, some would argue, is a natural, but his performances over the years indicate that mentally he has never translated talent into decision-making.
Which brings me back to Van der Westhuyzen. The Bok backs looked their most dangerous when he was in the No 10 jersey. He attacked the shortside because his pace off the mark was unrivalled and his kicking game steadily improved. He had a couple of howlers, most notably at Twickenham in 2004, but he gives the Bok back division an attacking edge.
And if we don’t have a 10 who can shut out a game, then we have to go with the guy who can change the course of the game through his ability to run the right attacking line and put the opposition defence under pressure because of his speed off the mark.
Van der Westhuyzen’s worth to the Boks gets bigger every weekend.