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Sacha the answer to Willie conundrum?

OPINION: Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu has the skill set to fill the boots of Willie le Roux and Damian Willemse as the Springboks’ fullback-cum-first receiver in the mid-year Tests.

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Given the growing list of injuries, particularly in the back-three department, it’s been a challenging week for the Bok selectors.

Willemse, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie have undergone surgery for their respective hand injuries.

Willemse is expected to be sidelined for some time, while it remains to be seen whether Arendse and Moodie will feature against Ireland and Portugal next month.

Cheslin Kolbe, another frontline wing and fullback option, is recovering from a knee injury sustained while on duty for his club in Japan.

While Kolbe is still in camp with the Boks, it’s yet to be confirmed whether he will feature against Wales, or even in the two big Tests against Ireland.

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This past Saturday, Willie le Roux sustained a blow to the head during the United Rugby Championship semifinal against Leinster and did not return to the field.

While the full medical report is pending, Bulls coach Jake White suggested that it may be a neck injury rather than a concussion.

The Bok coaches will be following those updates with interest.

While Le Roux won’t be available for the first Test against Wales, he will be needed for the doubleheader against Ireland – even more so now that Willemse is crocked.

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A worst-case scenario sees Le Roux missing the big Tests in Pretoria and Durban, and a third- or fourth-choice player wearing the Bok No.15 jersey.

Erasmus has been assessing other options within the current Bok squad, from specialists such as Quan Horn and Aphelele Fassi to utility players like Feinberg-Mngomezulu, who has played flyhalf, centre and fullback for his franchise in recent seasons.

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The Wales Test has been identified as an opportunity to trial new players and combinations, and Erasmus should make good on his promise to pick a few uncapped players when the team is announced on Tuesday.

One wonders, however, how the uncertainty around Le Roux may influence the selection at No.15, especially with the all-important series against Ireland less than three weeks away.

Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber were fairly consistent with their selections at the back between 2018 and 2023. Le Roux was the first-choice fullback in the first four seasons, while Willemse moved ahead in the pecking order thereafter.

Significantly, the Bok coaches favoured a No.15 with excellent communication and game-management skills.

Much has been made about Le Roux and Willemse’s ability to come into the line after the first two phases and serve as a second flyhalf.

What many people don’t see is how they organise their wings, and even the midfielders and halfbacks, from the backfield on attack and defence.

Fullback is one of the most important positions in the South African system, and it’s no coincidence that the coaches continue to favour retreaded flyhalves with excellent game management skills for the role.

Which brings us to the current group of available players (sans Le Roux).

While the Sharks continue to back Fassi at No.15, the Boks have only ever used him on the wing.

It will be interesting to see whether he gets any game time at fullback over the next series of matches.

Like Fassi, Horn has an outstanding season for the Lions, and deserves a call-up, but one wonders if he is ready to fill the boots of Le Roux and Willemse at this early stage of his career, especially in a starting capacity.

The same question could be asked of Feinberg-Mngomezulu, who is only 22.

The former Junior Bok captain was fast-tracked to the Stormers side in 2022, after a series of backline injuries hit the franchise.

Feinberg-Mngomezulu rose to the occasion and helped the Stormers win the URC title.

Later that year, he was trialled by the Stormers as a starting flyhalf and as the team’s first-choice goal-kicker on the tour to the Northern Hemisphere, and succeeded in both roles. He travelled to Europe with the South Africa A side and started at No 10 against the Bristol Bears, a senior debut that unfortunately ended in serious injury.

More recently, he has been elevated to the Stormers starting lineup to cover for Willemse and Warrick Gelant at fullback and has shown an aptitude for a more permanent role.

In the long term, Feinberg-Mngomezulu may replace the likes of Handré Pollard at No 10. But right now, as the Boks scramble for fullback options and the coaches look to fast-track his development, he may receive game time at the back, either in a starting capacity or from the bench.

Whether Feinberg-Mngomezulu, Fassi or Horn wears the No.15 jersey in the coming Tests, they are likely to be targeted by the opposition halfbacks with a series of high-hanging kicks.

Wales and Ireland will believe that they can expose the Boks’ lack of experience in this area.

Indeed, even if Le Roux does return for the games against Ireland, the Boks may field at least one untried option in their back three.

Edwill van der Merwe appears the favourite to partner the more experienced Makazole Mapimpi on the wing against Wales, and may also feature against Ireland.

With so few first-choice players available, Erasmus will have to gamble one way or another.

The Bok coach has often spoken about the need to balance youth and experience in such fixtures, and playing three rookies in the back three would compromise the impact of the individuals as well as the efficiency of the combination.

But Erasmus has to plan for a scenario in which Le Roux or Kolbe don’t make it back for the Ireland series – or pick up another knock along the way.

With that scenario in mind, he would do well to select a rookie fullback for the Wales Test, who could go on to potentially feature against Ireland.

Kolbe himself may have to wear the No.15 jersey at some point, if Le Roux is unavailable.

Better known for his exploits on the wing, Kolbe has played flyhalf at club level and enjoyed a run at fullback on the 2022 tour to Europe.

It’s tempting to view the one-off against Wales in London this Saturday and the first of two Tests against Ireland on 6 July as completely different matches with very different priorities.

But given the injury situation, Erasmus may well use the Wales Test as a trial of sorts for the opener against Ireland, especially in the back three.

@rugby365com

In this 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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