Handre Pollard’s boot will have a big say in deciding whether South Africa makes a winning start to the November tour at Twickenham on Saturday.
After a narrow loss against Wales in June, the Rassie Erasmus era got wins against England in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein, as the 9-10-15 combination of Faf de Klerk, Handre Pollard and Willie le Roux controlled the contest with a higher volume of kicks.
But the result went England’s way at Newlands in the third Test when De Klerk was picked next to Elton Jantjies and Warrick Gelant for a total of 25 kicks, while England scrumhalf Ben Youngs alone made 21 kicks.
A full-strength lineup scored a massive win against the All Blacks in Wellington with almost no ball and came very close to doing it again three weeks later in Pretoria.
On Saturday, the Boks will arrive at Twickenham without De Klerk and Le Roux who have not been released by their English clubs because the match falls outside the official Test window. Bulls No 9 Ivan van Zyl will feed the scrum and Damian Willemse will be at fullback. The two have a total of six Test caps.
Maybe that inexperience is the reason Rassie picked them – to see what they do under pressure. He needs to see who his next scrumhalf and fullback is behind Faf and Willie, clearly his first-choice players for the World Cup. Van Zyl, Embrose Papier and Louis Schreuder are on this tour and they will fight it out for the other two scrumhalf places in the 2019 squad.
Rassie knows Van Zyl has talent, he was endorsed by Fourie du Preez, but the coach also knows Van Zyl hasn’t been tested in international rugby, and this week is one of those tests.
The problem is that England will be able to distribute the kicking duties between Ben Youngs (77 caps) and Owen Farrell (61), but the Boks will have a youngster starting at nine at Twickenham, and if his first box-kick goes too far or is off target, then that can get in his head.
Maybe the thinking with Willemse at fullback is similar, to expose him to Test rugby where he has more time to make his reads and kick. He’s great on the counter-attack, and has good feet and speed. Look at what he did with his first touch against the All Blacks at Loftus Versfeld, stepping two defenders. But he still has to prove his value in terms of finding the right balance between knowing when to run and when to kick.
It’s a good move by Rassie if that’s the reason Willemse is at fullback because, in big games, the No 10 has to make smart moves, like a chess match, and WP’s Currie Cup semi-final against the Bulls showed that he’s not there yet.
In a way, Saturday’s Test match is like the Currie Cup final where the Sharks 9-10-15 combination of Schreuder, Rob du Preez and Curwin Bosch was tactically much better than Herschel Jantjies, Josh Stander and Dillyn Leyds.
The reason I would have preferred Gio Aplon at fullback this week is because he would give the Boks more experience, and a left-footer. Having three right-footed kickers makes it much easier for England to defend our kicking game. With Aplon at fullback the Boks would have been able to split the defence in terms of covering SA’s kicking options, like they do when Faf plays.
A team cannot cover all the space at the back and when you have left- and right-footed kickers it opens up better angles and sets up better exits.
Dominating the kicking game on this tour will be major for the Boks because the wet fields of Europe help the defenders, making it more dangerous to run out of your 22 and more important to get field position.
A former Springbok and Western Province flyhalf, Cilliers has worked with the likes of Morne Steyn, Derick Hougaard, Demetri Catrakilis and Lionel Cronje during his career as a kicking coach at the Bulls, Stormers and most recently as a consultant to clubs in France and Japan. Follow: @Vlokskop10