There’s no need to groom Ruan Pienaar at fullback when both Conrad Jantjes and newcomer Zane Kirchner are likely to cover the position at the 2011 World Cup.
Jantjes writhed in agony as the Super 14 clash between the Stormers and the Chiefs ground to a halt. A broken leg meant the end of his season with the Cape franchise as well as the end of his involvement with the Springboks in 2009.
A month out from the British & Irish Lions series, the Bok management began the search for a replacement. The timing couldn’t have been worse with Percy Montgomery retiring in August 2008. They made a sensible choice in Frans Steyn, but it was a gamble considering the Sharks’ player had spent the majority of his provincial and international career at No 10 and 12.
The gamble paid off, as Steyn proved to be one of the key players in the Boks’ 2-1 beating of the Lions. His prodigious line-kicking proved invaluable, so much so that the Lions formulated a strategy aimed at nullifying his big boot. Their kickers sought to bring Steyn forward and force him to run, knowing the secondary kicker wouldn’t gain as much distance with the subsequent clearance.
The Bok management persisted with Steyn on the home leg of the Tri-Nations, a three-Test period characterised by a smart kick-chase strategy.
Peter de Villiers always knew Steyn would be leaving for French club Racing Metro at the end of the tournament. Because of the bar on foreign-based players, he knew Steyn’s involvement was limited. As a result, he has sought to phase Steyn out and give Pienaar game time at fullback.
This move is flawed for several reasons. Firstly, the Boks still have a Tri-Nations to win. Despite their favourable position, the title is not secured. History confirms South Africa are unable to win consistently overseas. That may change this year with a strong team and sound strategy, but why take an unnecessary risk? Why alter a winning combination when the title is not yet won?
The Aussies will miss the kicking game of Berrick Barnes, but given Steyn is settled at fullback having started five Tests this season, why not hand him a further start and allow the Bok machine to roll on? Allow him, along with Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn, to continue pinning the Australian speedsters back and turning that gold pack around. Don’t ask Pienaar to come in and replicate that performance. He doesn’t boast the punting power.
Secondly, why move Pienaar away from the flyhalf position? Morne Steyn has taken opportunity after opportunity since that fateful second Test against the Lions, and has contributed largely to the Boks’ recent Tri-Nations success. Just because he looks to have nailed down the No 10 spot doesn’t mean De Villiers should be looking to deploy Pienaar elsewhere. He is still a bright prospect at No 10.
Thirdly, there’s Jantjes’s 2010 return to consider. Keo.co.za spotted the Bok fullback at a Western Province training session on Monday. There was no strapping on the injured leg and Jantjes confirmed he would begin running next week. He will only be back in next year’s Super 14, but thereafter, he must be in the Boks’ long-term plans.
The selection of Pienaar at fullback for Saturday’s Test has no benefit in the short- or long-term. The Boks should persist with the same starting XV and clinch the Tri-Nations. After achieving that, there will be an opportunity for second-choice selections that allow a winning team to simultaneously build some depth. These opportunities will also be available when they tour Europe in November.
Pienaar must be seen as the alternative to Steyn – Morne, not Frans. Whether the latter Steyn features in the 2011 World Cup is up for debate considering he’s signed a three-year contract with Racing, but there are other fullbacks already waiting in the wings.
Jantjes would be the starting fullback but for injury, and is surely the favourite to start in New Zealand at the World Cup. The Boks have a promising player in Zane Kirchner, who was selected as part of De Villiers’s greater squad in early 2008. Kirchner made his debut in the third Test against the Lions, and with the right mentoring, he could develop into a world-class Springbok.
Neither of these players are on tour, but this doesn’t give De Villiers sufficient reason to push Pienaar to play in a Test as important as Saturday’s. Start Frans Steyn at 15 in Perth, and in Brisbane. If the Bok coach feels like exploring other fullback options in Hamilton, where the title shouldn’t be at stake, then give Pienaar a run.
Pienaar’s been tagged as a utility player capable of covering every position in the backline. Whether this tag dooms him to a career on the Bok bench, where the management can afford a 5-2 split because of Pienaar’s ability to replace Nos 9 to 15, remains to be seen.
What is for certain is that Pienaar is not a prospective starting fullback, and he shouldn’t be risked in this capacity in a game of this magnitude.
By Jon Cardinelli