There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a young player being trialled in multiple positions. Dan Carter started out at inside centre, deputising for Andrew Merthens and Carlos Spencer.
Stephen Larkham started out at fullback. Matt Giteau was a scrumhalf, made his name at 10 and 12, converted back to nine, and eventually settled as a hybrid 10-12. Mike Catt played professional and test rugby for eight years before England finally realised he was an inside centre.
Hell, even Ma’a Nonu had to go stand on the wing for a season or two before moving inside, and Beauden Barrett had to establish himself on the Test scene as an impact player covering the back three.
These six players average 95 Tests, 567 points and one World Cup trophy per player between the lot of them.
So why the outcry over Curwin Bosch (21) and Damian Willemse (20) each deputising at fullback in some matches, even though both prefer to play flyhalf?
The answer is Brent Russell, Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn.
All three of these players were blessed with incredible talent. Pienaar won 88 caps for his country, Steyn won 56 and Russell played in 23 Tests. Each won a Tri-Nations championship. Pienaar and Steyn won a World Cup.
But there’s another thing that all three of them have in common: potential that was never fully realised because coaches couldn’t decide where to play them. They were often used as stop-gap options while coaches tried to figure out what to do with them, or find someone more suited to the job.
Pienaar was supposed to be the best scrumhalf in the world when Fourie du Preez took a Japanese hiatus in 2012, Steyn should’ve been the most capped Bok by now and Russell only managed 23 Tests because even he didn’t know what his best position was.
So, seeing Bosch and Willemse playing at fullback after making their names as flyhalves probably gives supporters an unsettling sense of déjà vu.
Willemse is a future Bok star but unfortunately doesn’t yet have the nuance or experience to lead the Bok backline ahead of incumbent 10s Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies. Rassie Erasmus has shown that he rates Willemse, throwing him in at the deep end as the last line of defence versus England at Twickenham. So why not give him valuable Test game-time at fullback a la Barrett from 2012 to 2015?
He may just become a great 15, or, when Pollard and Jantjies eventually fade or retire, he can slot in and become the pivot with 30 Tests already under his belt. In any case, the back-up spot at fullback is all but settled for the World Cup later this year, and Willemse’s versatility makes him a more than pleasing squad option.
Bosch’s form has deteriorated since bursting onto the scene in 2016, with coaches reluctant to pick him at flyhalf with the 21-year old missing 38% of his tackles in 2017, and 28% of his tackles in 2018 during Super Rugby.
But more than that, it’s his counter-attacking prowess that makes him even more dangerous from the back. Bosch averages more than 11 metres per carry in Super Rugby, with his searing pace also causing 15 line-breaks last year, the 7th most in the competition. Add to that a well-educated cannon of a boot, and you must wonder why Bosch wouldn’t want to play 15?
Besides, if reports are to be believed and Bosch is looking into a move to Cape Town, he will play second fiddle to Willemse at 10 there, but could easily be the starter at fifteen.
But can you blame long-time supporters for being skeptical about these two prodigious talents being moved around in the backline? Probably not, especially when Bosch and Willemse continue to play understudy in Super Rugby to flyhalves that are either woefully out of form, or just not nearly as talented.
There’s a fine line between serving an apprenticeship in multiple positions for long enough to gain valuable experience, and crossing the tipping point that leads to a star talent being branded a utility back. Over the course of the next two or three seasons, Willemse and Bosch must each settle in one position if they’re going to make a meaningful impact for South Africa.
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