Super Rugby resumes this week and the Lions roar into Durban for a match that has regional as well as national implications. Aside from the log points the Sharks desperately need to keep their playoff-hopes alive, there is the showdown between two beleaguered flyhalves playing for Rugby Championship places.
Elton Jantjies versus Robert du Preez may in fact grow into the main attraction given the former’s horror showing at Newlands after being given a second opportunity by Rassie Erasmus to cement his claim as the back-up to Handre Pollard. Jantjies did the opposite, and speculation is once more rife as to who will be principal cover for Pollard going forward.
Although it will take something special from the Lions flyhalf to exorcise the demons of self-doubt, and convince the Springbok coach that he should remain in contention, Jantjies will be motivated to quickly get back on the bike after the ignominy of being jeered as his errors mounted against England.
The reality is that Jantjies has had more than enough opportunity to establish himself on the international stage. At 27, he has played 25 Tests and 103 Super Rugby games, and the bottom line is that he is often less than ordinary for the Boks.
Du Preez, like Jantjies, blotted his copy book in his last outing on the rugby field. In Du Preez’s debut off the bench in Washington D.C., he was charged down twice in as many minutes, at great cost to his team. Du Preez will be eager to prove that he is far better than those dismal couple of minutes in the Bok jersey and he’ll want to rebuild his case with solid performances for the Sharks in their remaining fixtures – all high-pressure, must-wins if the Durban outfit are to advance to the knockout rounds.
One possible spectator at Kings Park is an overseas-based flyhalf that Erasmus considered recalling for the England series. Patrick Lambie is indeed in Durbs where he is recovering from a reconstruction of his knee after tearing ACL ligaments playing for Racing 92 in Paris. Lambie has written off the balance of this year to recovery and will only next year become an option for Erasmus.
The Springbok coach has shed light on a possible backup to Pollard in the Rugby Championship. During the post-match press conference on Saturday night, Erasmus went from tactfully denying that Jantjies is not finished to, in the next breath, mentioning Damian Willemse, the precociously talented Stormers playmaker who was reserved from the England tour because Erasmus preferred for him to get game time for the SA Under 20 team in France.
In fact, after dropping Willemse’s name a few times, Erasmus eventually came out and said it: “Damian will be in the mix for the Rugby Championship.”
The 20-year-old currently has a knee injury, suffered during the World Rugby U20 Championship, and while he will not play in the Stormers’ remaining games, his recovery prognosis of six weeks will render him available for the Boks’ next fixture – against Argentina in Durban on August 18.
Willemse, like Du Preez, plays to the gain-line and both make more sense as cover for Pollard. Jantjies prefers a deeper game and some would argue that this tendency is the reason rookie Bok midfielder Andre Esterhuizen was unable to apply his strength of smashing over the advantage line and offloading in the tackle at Newlands .
If Pollard goes off in a Test, it would be sensible to have a substitute who plays a similar game to him. Willemse and Du Preez certainly fit that bill. Both will be in the Rugby Championship squad and at this stage it would seem Willemse is ahead of Du Preez in the flyhalf pecking order.
Erasmus will know that he can blood Willemse in the same way that the All Blacks brought through Beauden Barrett — with increasingly long spells off the bench. Du Preez, though, has the opportunity with the Sharks to build his case, starting this Saturday against the Lions, who will be guided by a flyhalf who has no intention of surrendering his place in the Bok squad.