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Return of Stormers will complicate Bok plans at No.10

OPINION: Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus has shown his intent by selecting five flyhalves in his initial training squad, yet it remains to be seen whether Manie Libbok or a newcomer will start against Wales in the season-opener.

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The Stormers’ loss is the Springboks’ gain.

Had they beaten Glasgow Warriors in the United Rugby Championship quarterfinal and progressed to the latter stages of that tournament, their best players would have missed out on selection for the one-off Test against Wales in London, which will be staged on June 22, the same day as the URC Final.

Now that their season is over, nine Stormers players have been invited to an initial Springbok training camp in Pretoria, and will be available for the clash at Twickenham.

The influx of players – who vary in levels of experience – will please Erasmus, who is suddenly spoiled for choice in many positions.

It’s a healthy headache to have, and it will be interesting to see whether Erasmus picks his best available team for that one-off against Wales, or a mix of young and experienced players with the journey to the 2027 World Cup in mind.

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Ireland will arrive in South Africa in a few weeks’ time for what promises to be the series of the season, given the standing of these two giants in Test rugby.

A month later, the Boks will battle the All Blacks in a two-game epic staged on South African soil.

It may seem crazy to think beyond those matches, and what a series victory against Ireland as well as a rare Rugby Championship title could do for this Bok group’s legacy.

And yet, Erasmus has always highlighted the team’s three priorities of results, development and transformation.

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Those priorities have informed his and Jacques Nienaber’s selections over the past six years, and will certainly have a bearing on the balance on the side in 2024, and in the lead-up to 2027.

More specifically, Erasmus and his coaching staff will be mindful of the need to develop more options at flyhalf.

Five options have been included in the squad, namely World Cup-winners Handré Pollard and Manie Libbok, Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu (who was involved with the South Africa ‘A’ side in 2022) and newcomers Jordan Hendrikse and Siya Masuku.

Before exploring those options, it’s worth reflecting on how Erasmus has approached the selection and management of his flyhalves in past seasons.

While he cast the net wide in 2018 (blooding 19 youngsters), he committed to Pollard and to a lesser extent Elton Jantjies in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup. Frans Steyn travelled to that tournament in Japan as cover for flyhalf and other backline positions, while Damian Willemse provided an emergency option.

Plans to bolster South Africa’s depth after the 2019 World Cup were compromised, after the 2020 season was lost due to the Covid-19 pandemic and resultant restrictions.

The Boks played catch-up in 2021, and Erasmus and Nienaber continued to rely on Pollard and Jantjies. Veteran Morné Steyn joined the squad for a brief period, and had a significant impact in the third and decisive Test against the British and Irish Lions, but decided to hang up his boots after the subsequent Rugby Championship.

The flyhalf crisis of 2022 forced the Boks to look outside of Pollard and Jantjies ahead of the 2023 World Cup.

Pollard broke down with a serious knee injury during the tour of Australia, while Jantjies took a leave of absence to address a series of off-field issues. Frans Steyn plugged the gap, before succumbing to a knee injury of his own.

As a result, the Boks headed to Europe with Damian Willemse as their first-choice flyhalf. They attempted to mitigate Willemse’s weakness as a goal-kicker by handing the duties to others in the backline, such as Cheslin Kolbe and Faf de Klerk, with mixed results.

Libbok earned a first call-up on that tour, and was given the chance to face France, Italy and England. In 2023, while Pollard was recovering from yet another injury, Willemse and Libbok alternated at No.10 in the lead-up to the World Cup.

Libbok was the player entrusted with the responsibility against the All Blacks at Twickenham, and went on to star in a record-breaking victory for the Boks. While Pollard’s goal-kicking played a decisive role in the winning of the World Cup in France, it was Libbok’s attacking influence in the quarterfinal against the hosts that allowed the less fancied Boks to land a number of telling blows.

This is of particular relevance some eight months later, as Erasmus brings his squad together ahead of the new Test season, and South African fans start to debate who should wear the No.10 shirt in the short- and long-term.

Pollard, like the rest of the Boks based at European clubs, won’t be available for the one-off Test against Wales, as it falls outside of the international window.

The double World Cup-winner, however, should be backed to start in the big games against Ireland and New Zealand.

While his track record with knee injuries suggests that he may fail to make it to 2027, the 30-year-old is certainly young enough to push for a place in that squad.

The All Blacks legend Dan Carter, of course, won the 2015 World Cup at the age of 33. Fitness, rather than age, will remain Pollard’s primary hurdle over the next few seasons.

Erasmus won’t make the mistake of betting on Pollard’s fitness, though. As was the case last season, the coach will develop a few options to ensure that the Boks are well covered by the time they travel to Australia in 2027.

Libbok’s form has fluctuated over the past few months. While he’s patently capable of game-breaking plays, and has the ability to nail last-gasp penalties and conversions that mean the difference between winning and losing, consistency remains elusive.

It’s unfair to expect Libbok to perform at the same level as Pollard at this relatively early stage of his Test career. With time, he may address the flaws in his game and become a more rounded player.

But therein lies the challenge for Erasmus: does he prioritise Libbok’s ongoing development (where possible), or does he ensure that more players receive a chance in that position?

Consider a scenario in which Pollard has been identified as the first-choice flyhalf, and Libbok the second.

In that case, you would expect Libbok to start when Pollard is not available – for example, the Wales Test next week – or when the veteran is being rested.

This would also ensure that Libbok continues to receive some exposure and continues to develop his game at the highest level.

Willemse is currently unavailable due to a finger injury, but is likely to focus on the fullback position when he returns. The Boks are on the hunt for a bona fide third flyhalf option, as well as a few players who can cover more than one of the key backline positions.

Will these players receive sufficient opportunities if both Pollard and Libbok remain fit?

It’s possible, but Erasmus will have to manage these players smartly in order to tick the boxes of results and development.

Last week, the equation seemed more straight-forward. There was still some hope of the Stormers progressing to the URC semifinals, and of those players missing out on the Wales Test.

In that scenario, Erasmus’ flyhalf options were limited to uncapped players such as Jordan Hendrikse and Masuku.

Now that the Stormers players are available for the Wales Test, Erasmus has two more outstanding options in Libbok and Feinberg-Mngomezulu.

The latter is a special talent, who has excelled for the South African age-group teams and more recently for the Stormers. He hasn’t enjoyed many opportunities to kick for goal of late, but kicking remains one of his greatest strengths.

It wouldn’t surprise to see Feinberg-Mngomezulu getting an opportunity at the Boks, possibly from the bench, in the coming games against Wales or Portugal.

Jordan Hendrikse deserves to be in the long-term conversation, and one can understand why he has been brought in now to rub shoulders with the likes of Pollard and Libbok.

At some stage, Erasmus may consider another candidate for the Bomb Squad, who is arguably better suited to that particular role.

Sanele Nohamba, the versatile Lions halfback, who has offered an excellent goal-kicking option this season, was injured in the final game against the Stormers in Cape Town.

There’s a lot of talk about who should wear the No.10 jersey from the outset, but the evolution of the Bomb Squad over the coming years, and the integration of a player like Nohamba, may be even more important.

At the moment, Erasmus is spoiled for choice. Indeed, if the Bulls go on to win the URC, he may have cause to add another name – that of Johan Goosen – to a growing list of flyhalf candidates.

But as seen in 2022, injuries can shorten that list and alter the pecking order very quickly.

In that event, Hendrikse and Masuku, who may be on the fringes at this stage, could be thrust into the limelight.

Fans may agree or disagree with Erasmus’s selections for the Wales Test, and even for the marquee games that follow.

It’s significant, however, that Erasmus has so many options at his disposal, and has brought them into the initial training squad.

It shows that the Boks are serious about beating Ireland and New Zealand this season, but it also indicates that they are planning for life without Pollard down the line.

In the latest episode of Walk the Talk, Jim Hamilton chats with double World Cup winner Damian de Allende about all things Springbok rugby, including RWC2023 and the upcoming Ireland series. Watch now for free on RugbyPass TV

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