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FEATURE Springbok fly-half headache persists as World Cup looms large

Springbok fly-half headache persists as World Cup looms large
10 months ago

Handré Pollard’s problematic calf injury may force Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber to take a selection gamble at the World Cup in France.

Option one: Nienaber backs Damian Willemse at No 10 for the Boks’ most important World Cup pool fixtures against Scotland and Ireland – just as he’s backed the utility player for the better part of 12 months. There’s merit in the idea, given Willemse’s attacking and defensive contributions in that position over a period of seven Tests.

Option two: Manie Libbok is backed to start at fly-half, despite a patent lack of experience. Following the match against Argentina at Ellis Park this Saturday, Libbok will have started in two of his six Tests. Experience aside, this gamble has the potential to pay off on multiple fronts, as the attack-minded Libbok also possesses one of the strongest tactical-kicking games in South Africa, and is more reliable than Willemse in front of goal.

Nienaber will prefer option three, which sees Pollard recovering in time to start against Scotland and Ireland in France. This option could also be viewed as a gamble, as Pollard  hasn’t played a Test since starting against Australia in Adelaide last August.

Nienaber recently confirmed that Pollard and the injured Bok captain Siya Kolisi will be given as much time as needed to regain their fitness. All of the aforementioned players are set to be included in the 33-man World Cup squad, which will be announced on 8 August.

Coaches Rassie Erasmus and Nienaber have cast the net wide over the past six years, and have brought more than 100 players through to the South African squad. As a result, they have bolstered the group’s depth across most positions – although the management of the flyhalves has long been a talking point.

BOK STARTS AT FLYHALF IN ERASMUS-NIENABER ERA (2018-2023)

PLAYER20182019202120222023TEST TOTALSA A STARTS
POLLARD1181150350
JANTJIES34210101
WILLEMSE0006170
F STEYN0001010
M STEYN0000001
LIBBOK0220
GOOSEN0000001
FEINBERG- MNGOMEZULU0000001

Over the course of the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Erasmus used two fly-halves, namely Pollard and Jantjies. Frans Steyn was listed as flyhalf cover when he sat on the bench in the 2019 World Cup playoffs, while Willie le Roux, who began his club career at first-receiver, was touted as an emergency alternative.

Pollard started 19 out of 26 Tests during that period, while Jantjies wore the No 10 jersey on just seven occasions. This selection policy never came back to bite the Boks, as Pollard stayed fit for the duration of the 2019 World Cup tournament, and was one of South Africa’s star players in the 32-12 victory over England in the final.

Erasmus and Nienaber had planned to bolster South Africa’s depth in key positions the following year. Covid-19 restrictions prevented the Boks from playing Test rugby in 2020, however, and the plans for development were shelved. The coaches went into 2021 series against the British & Irish Lions with a win-at-all-costs mindset.

Pollard was backed as the first-choice No 10, and Jantjies as the understudy. Veteran Morné Steyn, the hero of the 2009 series against the Lions, was recruited for his experience as well as his ability to slot match-winning goals. The selection policy paid off, as Pollard proved himself across most departments, and Steyn came off the bench in the third Test to nail two crucial goal kicks.

With a Lions series victory in the bag, the Bok coaches started to look ahead to the 2023 World Cup. Pollard remained the favourite for the No 10 jersey, and at that stage, Jantjies was still a part of the plan. Frans Steyn and Morné Steyn were sounded out, and for a short time, the Boks appeared well-covered for the remainder of the four-year cycle.

Then Morné Steyn announced his retirement from international rugby after the 2021 Rugby Championship. Little did the coaches know that their Test flyhalf stocks would be all but depleted 12 months down the line.

Elton Jantjies
Despite having 46 Springbok caps, Elton Jantjies has fallen out of favour in Springboks circles after below-par performances (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

After playing second fiddle to Pollard for the better part of four years, Jantjies was given the chance to stake a claim in the first Test of the 2022 season. The Boks made a terrible start to the match against Wales in Pretoria, and Jantjies delivered an error-strewn performance.

South Africa went to the break trailing by 17 points, and Nienaber took the extreme yet necessary decision to replace Jantjies with Willemse at first-receiver. The utility player spearheaded a remarkable South African comeback, and slotted a penalty in injury time to clinch a 32-29 win. To this day, Nienaber uses that match-winning effort as evidence of Willemse’s temperament and goal-kicking potential.

Pollard’s return to the side in the second Test signified a return to the status quo. It was only after he sustained a serious knee injury in Adelaide, and after Jantjies left the squad to attend to a couple of off-field issues, that the dynamic began to change.

Willemse was backed to start at No 10 in the next two games against Australia and Argentina, and starred in two emphatic victories. He missed the next game due to concussion, and Frans Steyn was asked to step up at flyhalf. The Boks won the final Rugby Championship match against Argentina, but fell short of winning the title.

The crisis took another turn ahead of the tour to Europe. Pollard sustained yet another knee injury while on duty for Leicester in the Premiership, while Jantjies was declared unavailable for selection due to personal reasons. Steyn joined the injury list, and so the Boks departed without a seasoned flyhalf or an established goal-kicker at Test level.

Johan Goosen overcame a couple of injury setbacks to make the wider squad, but a lack of game time precluded the veteran from Test selection. The precocious Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu featured for the South Africa A team on that tour, but picked up a serious injury in the game against Bristol Bears.

Damian Willemse
Damian Willemse’s talent is undeniable but there are doubts as to whether No 10 is his most effective position (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

In spite of the setbacks, the Boks pushed Ireland close in Dublin, and rebounded from an early red-card setback to finish within a score of France in Marseille. With Willemse calling the shots, and Libbok providing impact from the bench in the latter stages, they scored 63 points and nine tries against Italy in Genoa, and thumped England 27-13 at Twickenham.

At that stage, Pollard was on the mend. The 63-Test veteran made a successful return to play for Leicester in late December, and was expected to rejoin the Boks in the lead-up to the truncated 2023 Rugby Championship campaign.

Another injury crisis hit the team on the eve of the southern-hemisphere tournament. Pollard picked up a calf injury during the latter stages of the Premiership, and was ruled out for the duration of the Rugby Championship. Steyn, who had been battling injuries for some time, announced his international retirement. Jantjies – who had been playing for Agen in the French second division since losing his Japanese club contract in late 2022 – was recalled to the squad as flyhalf cover for Willemse and Libbok.

Nienaber split his squad, fielding a B team in the opener against Australia in Pretoria, and his strongest available combination in the second match against New Zealand in Auckland. When he picked Libbok at No 10 for the first Test, and then Willemse for the tougher assignment abroad, it seemed as if the pecking order had been established.

In the light of recent developments, Nienaber could be forgiven for having a change of heart. Libbok may not boast Willemse’s experience at Test level, but he is a more reliable goal-kicker, and the Boks will need a sharpshooter in the coming months if Pollard doesn’t make it back.

BOK GOAL-KICKING STATS (2022-23)

PLAYERRECORDSUCCESS RATE
F STEYN7/7100%
HENDRIKSE1/1100%
POLLARD21/2488%
LIBBOK9/1275%
DE KLERK7/1070%
KOLBE8/1361%
WILLEMSE8/1457%

In an interview with Daily Maverick, France’s kicking coach Vlok Cilliers spoke about the standard of goal-kicking in Test rugby, and what sets the truly great teams apart.

Cilliers was part of the Bulls group that enjoyed multiple title successes in the 2000s, and has been a key member of Fabien Galthie’s French set-up since 2020. While the game has changed a great deal over the past two decades, an accurate goal-kicker is more valuable than ever.

“When I started as a coach in 2004, the average success rate in front of goal was around 65%,” Cilliers said.  “That’s what it took to be considered a top goal-kicker. By 2009, it had gone up to 77%, with Morné Steyn and Dan Carter leading the way at Test level.

“Nowadays, I would say that top goal-kickers should be averaging between 88 and 90%. Defensive systems have improved to such an extent that points are so hard to come by. You need a kicker to add those two points for the conversion, or to nail those long-range penalties, as they can mean the difference between winning and losing big games and tournaments.”

The Boks have used seven goal-kickers since the start of the 2022 season. Despite the excellent individual efforts of Pollard (88%) and Frans Steyn (100%), the Boks have averaged a mediocre 75% over a period of 15 Tests

Joel Stransky and Jonny Wilkinson struck late drop goals to steer their respective teams to World Cup glory in 1995 and 2003. Percy Montgomery and Frans Steyn’s goal-kicking accuracy earned the Boks the title in 2007, while Stephen Donald came off the bench to secure a narrow victory for New Zealand in the 2011 decider.

So who will step up to nail the pressure kicks for South Africa in France in the coming months?

The Boks have used seven goal-kickers since the start of the 2022 season. Despite the excellent individual efforts of Pollard (88%) and Frans Steyn (100%), the Boks have averaged a mediocre 75% in this department over a period of 15 Tests.

Faf de Klerk
With Handre Pollard out, Faf de Klerk has been entrusted with kicking duties over the last nine months (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

Willemse, who was at the start of the 2023 season viewed as the second-choice No 10 in the squad, hasn’t shown much progress in this area, and comes in at last on this list with a success rate of 57%.

Pollard himself may sympathise with Willemse, having wrestled with his own goal-kicking demons during the early stages of his career. Willemse may yet improve in this area in later years. Right now, it would be a risk to persist with him in this role at a tournament where goal-kicking is so important.

South Africa have to prepare for a worst-case scenario in which Pollard doesn’t make it back. Some might view the recent selections for the final Rugby Championship clash against Argentina as proof that Libbok is being lined up for the responsibilities, and that Willemse is set to revert to a more familiar utility role.

Perhaps that dynamic will prove successful in France later this year, and the Boks will avoid further setbacks in that crucial position. The coaches will be hoping for a little more luck, though, and a best-case scenario that sees Pollard returning to the fold.

Comments

5 Comments
F
Flankly 327 days ago

Jonny Wilkinson worked on his kicking with a relentless schedule of daily practice. Reputedly he intentionally went out in the rain and the wind, he practiced with both feet, he practiced when exhausted from fitness sessions, etc. He also had great kicking coaches, including mental coaching. Of course he had talent, but he always ascribed his kicking success rate to hard work. And he won the 2003 RWC for England, in extra time, with a dropped goal off his weaker foot.

So the question on the Bok kickers with their less-than-stellar kicking record, is whether they are doing that kind of hard work and not getting the results, or just not doing the hard work.

There are so many examples of teams winning big games with last-minute place kicks and dropped goals, under pressure. If Rassie/Jacques have not been focusing on this then they are crazy.

B
Bob Marler 328 days ago

I think everyone should calm down about the boks “problem at 10”.

It’s the same fucken noise every 4 years. Worry about the pack. Any flyhalf in the world plays well on the front foot with a dominant pack in front of them.

To judge Willemse, or anyone at 1st receiver for the boks, after a game when the ABs pack were so effective is dumb. After Willemse’s displays at 10 last year were lauded?

After Manie (and now Williams) good showings when given the chance, I hardly think we have a problem at 10. When we’ve played poorly, lost or Been exposed at 10 is when we lost the battle upfront. SA wins tests with the pack first.

S
Samuel 328 days ago

Well said!!!

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