It feels weird even to say it, but five or so months ago the public wasn’t convinced that Faf de Klerk could bring something special to the Springboks.
Memories still burned of a performance that precipitated an embarrassing Rugby Championship and saw him sitting snug on the bench for the following Tests, waiting for an opportunity to come on for Rudy Paige.
Heck, a few weeks before that, some rugby scribes were still pining over Francois Hougaard’s decision to quit the international scene and take with him a dynamic option available to Rassie Erasmus.
Now, not only is there a clear first-choice option at scrumhalf but also what looks like more than a semblance of depth.
The position is emblematic of a unique situation Erasmus finds himself in: having a first-choice squad to choose from. How he spends his riches in the lead-up to the World Cup next year is worth watching out for.
At sixes and nines
Solved it might be, but the number nine slot is not absent of questions. De Klerk is unsurprisingly likely to reprise his spot for the Saturday evening battle against France, thanks to the game falling under the almost arbitrary confines of the international window. Which is great — except it leaves us right back where we started this time last week.
As De Klerk joked merrily with his mates in the stands at Twickenham against England on the weekend, all eyes were on Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier, when called upon, to see whether they could continue the unusual streak of good scrumhalf performances.
“I think all of the youngsters did really well,” Erasmus was later quoted as saying. “You can’t really expect two young number nines like Embrose and Ivan to come and control the game like 30-year-olds or 50-cappers. I think, for them, games like this are just a learning curve and there are players around them to help them through times like this …
“We missed Faf but we always knew we were going to miss him in this game and Willie [le Roux] as well, but I really don’t think the two number nines and Damian [Willemse] did badly at all.”
Van Zyl no doubt had a decent run out. He was quick off the base and ensured the tempo was quick enough to maintain the impressive pressure on the Red and Whites. Even the preferred territorial kicks of the current regime were adhered to, even if the box kicks were a little deep.
The other aspect of the equation, however, is that the pattern of the game allowed Van Zyl to go about his business without too much trouble. He remains largely untested in an environment where the breakdowns are more rapid and the gaps call for quicker capitalisation.
You have to wonder whether Erasmus is wondering about this.
There’s a similar situation brewing at fullback. Willemse is a prodigious talent, tipped by some to make the flyhalf position his own in the coming years. Bar one horrendous kick in the second half, the England game did little to dissuade us that he could warrant an immediate place.
But, like De Klerk, Le Roux was always going to find himself in the starting XV again. The question is: When will the time come for trial, error and blooding?
Bird of prey
In France, the Boks come up against a wounded opponent eager to cement their own place in the food chain as a team to be feared come Japan 2019.
After assuming control towards the end of last year, coach Jacques Brunel has enjoyed a troubled record of two wins from eight. Three of those matches came on their tour of New Zealand in June, their last competitive action, when the home side put in convincing margins en route to a 3-0 series win.
That, however, was expected from the world champs. Besides, Les Bleus followers still find themselves complaining about some of the refereeing decisions.
In the preceding Six Nations, they demonstrated their proclivity for the tight game, ending every match except their comprehensive win against Italy with a margin of six or less points. Given South Africa’s laboured shift against the territorial style of the northern hemisphere last weekend, there’s little reason to believe we’re not in for another close affair. If anything, France will probably prove a harder challenge than injury-strewn England did.
Like Erasmus, Brunel has his own squad depth to bask in. Although the trials to find a fitting scrumhalf for the green and gold has been intense, their opponents have equally struggled at fly-half; five different men have been asked to fill the position in roughly the past year or so. No surprise then that Brunel cheered the return of Camille Lopez, a player he described as the best number 10 in the country. Questions remain about his brittle body, which has kept him out of so much rugby recently, but if his ankle holds up he could steady the team long-term, starting with the Boks on Saturday.
France have a terrible record against their visitors, having lost all four games to them last year. You have to feel there’ll be a waft of revenge in the Parisian air and Eben Etzebeth and Co probably won’t come so close to getting away with the errors of a few days ago.
The strengths in this Boks side are plain to see — two impressive displays against the All Blacks ensured that. Never will the pack not be mentioned as key among them, but the back row is developing into its own exciting project.
With all the riches at his disposal, now when Erasmus will make clear his vision for 2019. At what level experimentation and depth probing will feature is due to become clear.