With David Pocock and Mako Vunipola in a race against time to recover from injuries before the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and injury concerns hovering over the likes of Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit, the AOR team debates which Springbok is so invaluable that he should immediately be pulled from Super Rugby duty.
Tank Lanning – Duane Vermeulen
In the build up to the last World Cup, Heyneke Meyer’s selection masterstroke was to eventually name Francois Louw, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen as his starting loose trio in 2012.
Regarded by many as the best trio on the planet, perhaps the best the Boks have ever produced, they were blunderbusses with ball in hand, gainline bullies, a handful in the collisions, and fiercely competitive at the breakdowns. Front-foot ball by the bucket load!
And perfectly balanced.
In an effort to replicate that balance and power, Rassie Erasmus could have kept Louw and replaced Alberts with Jean-Luc du Preez, who, together with Vermeulen, would form a pretty damn exciting loose trio.
But Louw has been injured, Du Preez is not Alberts, and Vermeulen is four years older. Enter new skipper, Siya Kolisi, who adds an athletic, physical, industrious, ball-carrying balance as a utility loose forward.
Kolisi will play 6, but not as an out-and-out fetcher, hence the massive value placed on Vermeulen’s skill at the breakdown.
As a package, and given the balance he brings to the loose trio, he is not replaceable, so having the bullocking Bulls eighthman fit and available for the World Cup is a non-negotiable for Erasmus.
Without him, Erasmus then starts pondering life with Warren Whiteley at 8, but the fellow has not played any rugby! Or perhaps Dan du Preez as a poor man’s like-for-like replacement? Might those options see Pieter-Steph du Toit confined to 7 instead of it being an interesting option? Or a ball hawk like Louw or Marco van Staden at 6, with Kolisi playing a more roving role at 7?
These are headaches Erasmus can ill afford. Put the big man on ice. Now!
Zelím Nel – Handre Pollard
Ever since Rassie Erasmus turned his attention from the Stormers to the Springboks he’s contended that the Rugby World Cup has never been won by a flyhalf younger than 24.
He again confirmed this position last year when asked about Damian Willemse’s 2019 Rugby World Cup prospects.
The Bok coach was referencing Jonny Wilkinson who was 24 when he kicked that game-winning drop goal against Australia to clinch the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
I’m a big believer in Erasmus’ technical nous and an even bigger believer in stats, and this one is not for nothing. However, there should be an asterisk next to the threshold figure in this case because Aaron Cruden was 22 when he jogged on in the 10 jersey for the All Blacks in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final. Admittedly, he was replaced after 34 minutes by Stephen Donald (27 at the time), but the fact remains that New Zealand started a 22-year-old flyhalf and went on to break a 20-year world championship drought.
The average age of the starting 10 in the team that wins RWC finals is 26.5, but it’s worth noting that the losing flyhalf is (on average) only three months younger. Perhaps even more pertinent is the fact that 6 of the 8 finals have been won by the younger flyhalf.
Beauden Barrett turned 28 on Monday; Elton Jantjies will be 29 in August.
What bearing does all of this have on the debate, you’re wondering. Well, Erasmus’ belief in age and experience at the flyhalf position is largely behind his decision to persist with Jantjies, instead of investing time in Willemse’s development. Jantjies has 33 Test caps while 21-year-old Willemse has just five.
The problem is that Jantjies’ age and experience belies a flyhalf who has missed the most tackles in Super Rugby in each of the past two seasons. And almost 40% of his Test caps have been earned off the bench, while 20 starts include historic losses against Argentina, Wales and New Zealand.
Willemse is in my opinion the most promising flyhalf prospect South Africa has produced since Butch James, but he hasn’t been groomed to start in Japan.
Though Handre Pollard (25) is far from perfect (uses too much ball, takes unnecessary contact, average distribution), he’s won more Tests than he’s lost and, factoring in experience, is currently the best available option.
Erasmus has Jantjies second in line and that means, if you want Siya Kolisi to hoist the Webb Ellis Cup on November 2, Pollard has got to stay healthy between now and then.
OK, you’ve read what they think, now let us know which way you’re leaning, or join the #BigDebate on Twitter!