Conflicting reports have raised doubts about Faf de Klerk’s availability for South Africa’s end-of-year tour, but whether the Bok halfback misses one, two or all four of the Tests in Europe, his absence may prove to be a blessing in disguise.
De Klerk played a lead role in blockbuster performances against the All Blacks during the Rugby Championship, but the lack of depth behind him was exposed when the Boks blew a 17-point lead in a 32-30 loss against the world champions at Loftus Versfeld.
De Klerk’s absence from at least parts of the November tour would force Rassie Erasmus to find clarity where he has been uncharacteristically indecisive. The 2019 Rugby World Cup is less than one year away and the sooner the Bok coach identifies who will travel to Japan as De Klerk’s official understudy, the better.
Though Ivan van Zyl was the early frontrunner for the backup role – he started and finished the once-off Test against Wales in June – his Blue Bulls teammate, Embrose Papier has played second fiddle to De Klerk in six of the last seven Tests. But where Papier should have no problem pulling on De Klerk’s jersey (both men weigh 80kg, with the latter standing 1cm taller), the 21-year-old may not yet be experienced enough to step into the void.
Papier’s Test career is only 23 minutes old (and only seven of those minutes came at scrumhalf) and a tally of 10 Super Rugby caps makes him callow at the next level down. To ask the youngster to assume a starting role on pitches, and against opponents, that will be worlds apart from what he’s experienced at a hot and dry Loftus Versveld is too great an ask at this stage in his career.
No alternative ticks all three boxes of international experience, European familiarity and reasonable youthfulness, except for Cobus Reinach.
The former Sharks scrumhalf is the perfect man to step into the breach. With 10 Test caps accumulated between 2014 and 2015, he has more experience than Papier and Van Zyl combined. Two tries and a string of energetic showings contributed to a personally-successful tour of Europe in 2014, and he’ll know the conditions better than most having been based in England since last year with the Northampton Saints.
Reinach has routinely made his ambitions to represent the Springboks clear, going so far as to say he would “win the World Cup for Rassie”. It’s just one of several bold statements of intent, perhaps buoyed by his somewhat unlucky exclusion from the 2015 global showpiece after solid showings in that year’s Rugby Championship.
Admittedly, Northampton haven’t had the best run of results of late, but Reinach’s instinctive attacking game have made him one of the few standouts, and his raw pace, unbridled passion and improving kicking game make him a good fit for De Klerk’s empty boots.
Putting all that aside, Reinach simply deserves a recall. He did very little to warrant his exile from the international arena during the past three seasons and is clearly willing to play his heart out for a ticket to Japan.
Handing him the No 9 jersey, while Papier continues to serve his apprenticeship off the bench, is the right thing to do for both players.
Reinach needs an opportunity to prove he can, in fact, win the Webb Ellis Cup for South Africa, and what better way to do that than by helping topple Europe’s giants?
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