Rynhardt Elstadt is the most intriguing call-up of nine overseas-based players added to the Springbok camp in Pretoria this week.
Having only recently recovered from the celebrations following Toulouse’s victory against Clermont in the Top 14 final, the 29-year-old arrived in the capital to resume his dream of representing South Africa, a long pursuit repeatedly hindered by injury.
The assumption is that Elstadt is competing for a depth-chart role as a flex forward, covering lock and blindside flanker. What may be closer to the truth is that Elstadt is going to be given a crack at making the World Cup squad as an openside flanker.
Supporters have generally got the 6 jersey reserved for a ball-hawk in the mould of Schalk Burger or Heinrich Brussow, so how can a 1.98-metre giant possibly be considered for the job, especially when that’s where Bok captain Siya Kolisi packs down?
Indeed, Kolisi will be the first name on the team sheet, as long as he’s healthy. But Elstadt’s return may have been precipitated by the Bok skipper’s knee injury, one that may yet keep Kolisi out of the Rugby Championships, which leaves little time to identify a capable replacement for a World Cup emergency.
The Stormers faced a similar dilemma a few seasons ago, and they settled on Elstadt as a solution.
A member of the 2009 Junior Bok squad, Elstadt made his senior debut for Western Province in the 2010 Currie Cup and the following season emerged as the Stormers’ answer to Bakkies Botha.
The rookie lock made his 15th Super Rugby start in the 2011 semi-final loss against the Crusaders and missed the remainder of the season with a knee injury suffered in that match. Elstadt’s comeback came one month into the 2012 season and he arrived back at the office only to find that his jersey had been taken by a newbie named Eben Etzebeth.
The 2012 Stormers assembled arguably the most ferocious defence in competition history and it didn’t take long for coach Allister Coetzee to reinforce his army of thumpers by dropping Nick Koster to the bench, shifting Duane Vermeulen to No 8 and plugging Elstadt in at blindside flanker.
Over the course of the next two years, Elstadt made 21 appearances for the Stormers and 15 for Western Province, almost all of which came at No 7. The first exception occurred in 2013 when Elstadt started at openside flank in place of an injured Kolisi. The Stormers beat the Hurricanes 18-16 in Wellington.
That match marked just the second one missed by Kolisi since Schalk Burger had suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Stormers’ 2012 opener. The void created by Burger’s extended absence thrust the Grey High old boy into a Super Rugby starting role and Kolisi ran with the opportunity through 2013 as the world-renowned Bok fetcher battled a life-threatening case of meningitis.
But Kolisi’s versatility soon proved to be his Achilles heel. Though he’s an athletic all-rounder, the Bok captain is not a master poacher, a heavy-hitter in the fight for gain-line or a veritable lineout weapon.
It was for this reason that Coetzee began experimenting with Kolisi at blindside flanker in 2014 and, during the next five seasons, he wore the No 7 jersey in 47 of 55 starts for the Stormers.
Meanwhile, injuries limited Elstadt to 21 Super Rugby matches and 22 Currie Cup appearances between 2014 and his move to France for the 2017/18 season.
In 2014, makeshift openside flanker Deon Fourie left for Lyon while Burger made his long-awaited Super Rugby comeback as more of a linking loose forward, and Sikhumbuzo Notshe failed to make a successful transition to No 6 in 2016.
In the absence of an elite, specialist fetcher, responsible for securing quick ball at friendly rucks and achieving the opposite at enemy tackle points, Coetzee and then Robbie Fleck opted to ramp up the experiment with Elstadt at openside.
They recognised that, while a plodding, long-levered No 6 would negatively affect the Stormers’ scrum-strike capabilities on attack and defence, what Elstadt brought to the table in other facets produced a net gain for the team.
Calling off the search for a fetcher, the Stormers banked on the upside of adding tall timber to the lineout, a hammer to the defence and a big ball-carrier to the attack.
Erasmus is perhaps now considering the same equation because, with the possible exception of Marco van Staden, there isn’t a Test calibre ruck raider in the SA Conference. And given Vermeulen and Malcolm Marx’s expertise over the ball, the Bok coach may be eyeing the net gain of having Elstadt on standby if Kolisi misses time.
While that would be a dream come true for Elstadt, the Toulouse thumper has serious competition in the form of Marcell Coetzee. Another member of the foreign legion recalled for Bok inspection, the Ulster breakaway is an all-rounder similar to Kolisi.
Moreover, Coetzee’s season stats (as below) reveal a workrate superior to both Elstadt and Kolisi. In 1558 minutes of action this past season, Coetzee averaged 15.2 carries per game at 55% efficiency, broke a total of 16 tackles, scored five tries and successfully delivered four of five lineout targets (80%).
Defensively, Coetzee averaged 19.5 tackles per game at 94% efficiency (11.6% dominant tackles) and finished at -4 in Penalties/Turnovers Won versus Penalties/Turnovers Lost.
Erasmus will be hoping his captain is fit and firing at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but Elstadt could prove to be an unconventional yet effective solution to the worst-case scenario.