In contention for 10

JON CARDINELLI, writing in SA Rugby magazine, assesses the candidates who will be vying for the Springbok flyhalf jersey this year.

You’d read about it in a comic book or in a sport-meets-sci-fi short story. The powers that be respond to a World Cup failure by ordering their coaches and sport scientists to build the perfect player. Deep in the catacombs of the Newlands headquarters, the eggheads utilise advanced bio-technology to extract the strengths of each South African flyhalf and assemble a composite capable of spearheading a new breed of Springboks.

This hybrid possesses the boot of Morné Steyn, the vision of Ruan Pienaar, the cool composure of Pat Lambie and the innovation of Elton Jantjies. He has Butch James’s defensive belligerence, as well as Johan Goosen’s rare ability to nail long-range penalties. Rejoice all ye faithful South African supporters, for at long last we have manufactured the perfect 10.

It’s a fantastical scenario, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s going to take a laboratory experiment or even a radioactive spider bite to initiate South Africa’s flyhalf evolution. This country is blessed with an abundance of talent and yet the coaches continue to back limited players in the all-important position, or indeed fail to back those who have the potential to develop into something resembling the complete package.

In early 2008, Peter de Villiers expressed his desire to mould the Boks into a more threatening attacking unit. Ruan Pienaar was hailed as The Chosen One as the Boks embarked on a tour of the United Kingdom, and by the end of that three-match sojourn Pienaar had proved it was possible to strike a balance between running the ball and playing a more conservative, territory-oriented game.

In 2009, however, De Villiers lost faith in Pienaar as well as his own ambitious strive for duality. His selections, once made with the future good of the game in mind, became purely results driven. Pienaar was replaced by Steyn and while the selection brought the Boks short-term success, it proved to be a long-term decision that set South African rugby back four years. Predictably, the Boks stagnated in 2010 and 2011 and their subsequent World Cup quarter-final exit only underlined a pre-existing problem.

Most South African rugby supporters will want to forget about that disastrous campaign. They will want to read about the next Bok coach and the next group of players tasked with taking this nation forward. They have every right to feel enthused given that the well of talent in South Africa runs deep, but it would be foolish to ignore the failures of the past. The next Springbok coach has to take these harsh lessons into consideration when selecting his preferred flyhalf and formulating his game plan ahead of the 2012 season. What De Villiers’s tenure has provided is a blueprint of what not to do when it comes to managing key players and constructing playing patterns designed to win matches between and at big tournaments.

Steyn may have provided the Boks with goal-kicking security and a formidable tactical kicking game, but his weaknesses were mercilessly exposed by some of the better World Cup teams. Wales targeted his channel in South Africa’s opening game, while Samoa and Australia also enjoyed terrific momentum whenever they focused their attack on the limited No 10. With ball-in-hand, he played so deep in the pocket that he allowed opposition defences to negate South Africa’s attacking space. To paraphrase Eddie Jones, you just can’t afford to pick a flyhalf who plays in a dinner suit.

While the past few seasons have highlighted what is wrong with our rugby, they haven’t given us a definitive answer to the flyhalf question. If Steyn is unable to rectify his shortcomings, which after three international seasons looks to be the case, then the next Bok coach has to back someone new whether the goal is short-term success in 2012 or even long-term success in 2015.

Pat Lambie is a prime candidate. He was handed the flyhalf responsibility as a 20-year-old in the 2010 Currie Cup, and proved to be the difference in the final against Western Province. He was given limited opportunities on the Boks’ tour of   the home nations, but honed his game in the 2011 Super Rugby tournament, particularly in the departments of tactical kicking and shooting for goal.

Lambie did an admirable job at fullback during the recent World Cup, but has the skill set to excel in a greater game-shaping role. After four seasons, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans has now decided that it’s time to move the supremely talented James O’Connor to inside centre or flyhalf. After a two-season apprenticeship, perhaps it’s time that Lambie made a similar shift to the playmaking axis.

That he has the composure to perform in a high-pressure environment is not in question, and his value on defence and attack has been evident in previous Tests against the home nations as well as in this year’s Tri-Nations Test in Wellington. That latter display was especially significant as Lambie showed that he could impose himself on attack despite the lack of momentum up front.

Elton Jantjies’s match-winning efforts in this year’s Currie Cup final capped an incredible comeback for a player who had struggled in the preceding Super Rugby competition. That he had the goal-kicking ability and tactical-kicking prowess to be a success was never in doubt, but what marked his recent rise was a new confidence on attack and a willingness to take on the defence. Next year’s Super Rugby instalment will show just how far he’s come in this respect, and will also serve as an indicator of his defensive progress. If he can build on his Currie Cup form, he should be groomed for the ultimate responsibility at Test level.

There are more established options that the incoming Bok coach may want to consider. Steyn is a safe bet as long as the Boks aren’t playing a team that can outmuscle them in the forwards. If he wants to be viewed as more than goal-kicking insurance or a one-trick pony in general play, he will need to prove that he’s capable of a more balanced game in the coming Super Rugby tournament.

It’s a tough ask given the Bulls are at the beginning of a rebuilding process and the bulk of their forward veterans, namely Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Gary Botha and Gurthrö Steenkamp, have left the franchise. Unlike Lambie, Steyn has shown himself to be particularly susceptible when his pack is under pressure, and it would be  a stretch to believe that he can develop while his forwards are losing the battle up front.

De Villiers abandoned the Pienaar experiment in 2009, and his successor is unlikely to reinstate the versatile player given all that has transpired over the past two seasons. Once open to the possibility of playing 10, Pienaar has declared himself a specialist scrumhalf since moving to Irish club Ulster in late 2010. His confidence has also been dented through the mismanagement of previous Bok coaches, and while it will remain one of the great tragedies that he wasn’t given a fair go at flyhalf, it’s a mistake the next coach won’t be able to rectify.

Peter Grant is another who has hurt his chances of a Bok recall by deciding to play at least half of each season abroad. After his first stint with the Kobe Steelers in Japan, he returned to the Stormers undercooked, and struggled to recapture his form as the 2011 Super Rugby competition progressed. While Grant’s general game has regressed since 2010, his line-kicking has been consistently underwhelming.

The Boks need more than a kicking flyhalf to be successful in 2012, but they also need a pivot who can play a territorial game when the situation demands it. Steyn doesn’t meet the requirement of a modern-day 10 because his attacking game and defence are substandard, and Pop-gun Pete is at the other end of the scale of flyhalves who lack a balanced game.

Apart from Lambie and Jantjies, there are several other youngsters who the Bok coach should be monitoring closely over the next year or so. Sias Ebersohn has flourished in the attack-minded Cheetahs set-up, while Lionel Cronjé has shown at times why Rassie Erasmus once touted him as the next Frans Steyn. Johan Goosen, a schoolboy prodigy who became a YouTube sensation thanks to his outrageous long-range penalty attempts, shouldn’t be spoken about in the national context just yet. What is clear at this point is that all three of these players have the raw potential to be something special.

Of the young prospects, Lambie has had the most opportunities with his franchise and the Boks, but needs to be managed carefully if he is going to be a driving force. Sharks incumbent Freddie Michalak enjoyed a good Currie Cup this year, but if the next Bok coach intends to use Lambie at flyhalf, the 21-year-old needs to be starting in that position for his franchise. That Michalak plans to return to France should also influence the Sharks coaches’ decision to start Lambie at No 10 sooner rather than later.

Lions coach John Mitchell publicly criticised Jantjies at the beginning of Super Rugby this year, but recognised the need to back the youngster towards the end of the tournament. Mitchell also stuck with Jantjies throughout the Currie Cup and preferred him ahead of Butch James when the Bok veteran returned from a failed World Cup campaign in late October. Mitchell should continue to play Jantjies in this key position in 2012. Jantjies’s performances in the 2011 Super Rugby tournament suggested he needed another season to develop, and the 2012 edition will show whether he’s made the necessary improvements to be considered a realistic candidate for Bok playmaker.

That the Boks need to start embracing all facets of the game and maximising their attacking potential is not up for debate, but as to who is worthy of that hallowed No 10 jersey will only be decided after  several months of Super Rugby action. Providing the candidates receive sufficient opportunities to prove their worth, it promises to be an absorbing contest that will give the Bok coach something that his predecessors may have lacked: a number of balanced options.

– This article appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine. The January-February issue is on sale now.