The Super Rugby season starts on Thursday under a cloud of uncertainty regarding the future of the Springbok coaching staff and related issues such as the selection of overseas-based players for the Boks. This will play on the minds of local players that have higher honours in their sights.
For instance, who will succeed Adriaan Strauss as hooker and who will be the new Bok captain?
Malcolm Marx at the Lions will feel he has the inside track and has everything to play for, but would a possible new coach recall Bismarck du Plessis?
Will Duane Vermeuelen come back from France to captain the side from No 8, or will SA Rugby rule that the selection of overseas-based players must cease, regardless of whether Allister Coetzee remains in his position.
In short, a heck of a lot can change between next Thursday’s big kick-off and the first Test of three against France on 10 June.
In the meantime, the players can do little more than put their heads down and give of their best for their franchises in the hope that the Bok jersey materialises.
All that they can control is their form.
But there are some positions that are highly contestable, whether or not the controversial policy of resorting to “former” SA players is retained.
Let us look at inside centre, for example. It is mouth-watering for the unbiased observer to know that, at the Stormers, Damian de Allende is playing for his Springbok life under threat from Rohan Janse van Rensburg of the Lions. And let us not forget that Jan Serfontein of the Bulls is back from long-term injury.
Flyhalf, of course, will be a position under the microscope as three young Springboks based in South Africa scrap for the jersey. Elton Jantjies was the man mostly in possession last year, partly because of his brilliant form for the Lions in 2016 but also because Handre Pollard and Patrick Lambie were injured.
We have to presume that the Springbok coach, whoever it may be, will finally “retire” Morne Steyn, with respect to a player that has served his country with distinction, but is not the future.
Where is your money on the No 10 debate?
Jantjies has it all to do once more in Super Rugby after failing to make the step up to international rugby last year, Pollard has not played for a year after finishing 2015 as the Springboks’ World Cup flyhalf, while Lambie has barely played in Super Rugby for three years because of early season injuries.
Late last year, the Sharks playmaker was unfairly rushed back by a panicking Allister Coetzee after having recovered from a severe concussion suffered in the Boks’ first match of the year against Ireland, on June 11. He was understandably not at his best, especially as he was picked out of position at fullback.
After three months on the sidelines, he had played 40 minutes for the Sharks in the Currie Cup and then was then starting against the Wallabies in Pretoria.
The No 10 duel will possibly come down to Lambie v Pollard, and who knows what we can expect from either given they have barely played since being in such hot competition for the vital position at the 2015 World Cup.
It was Lambie that started against Japan, ahead of Pollard, in the first-round of that tournament and the Durban man was one of the scapegoats for that catastrophic defeat. Pollard started the next week against Samoa and then in all of the Boks’ remaining World Cup matches, and he played with conviction and aplomb.
Lambie, to his horror, was also the starting flyhalf when the Boks lost to Italy in Florence last year, but let’s be fair, that was a team disaster that had been building all season and it would not have mattered who had started at 10.
On that point, it was Pollard that started at 10 when the Boks disastrously lost to Argentina in Durban in 2015, prompting coach Heyneke Meyer to choose Lambie for the opening game of the World Cup…
So it is all to play for at 10 for Jantjies, Pollard and Lambie, all based in South Africa, and let us not forget a few other positions that will be hotly contested, never mind the policy regarding the ex-pats.
Who would the punter back to partner Eben Etzebeth at lock? Lood de Jager, who is due a return to form after a quiet 2016, or Pieter-Steph du Toit?
For this scribe, as we enter Super Rugby, Marx is my pick for the No 2 jersey; Pieter-Steph has the inside track to partner Eben, given Lood’s underwhelming form last year; Pollard ended the World Cup in commanding form and will be the man to beat at 10, should he be able able to pick up where he left off after a year’s absence, while at inside centre De Allende has a big challenge to regain lost form, and Janse van Rensburg should be pencilled in at this stage.
Scrumhalf? I am going to stick my neck out and contend that Reinach is technically a better scrumhalf than Faf, who was found wanting at international level. A Pollard- Reinach combination is untested, but has exciting potential written all over it!