Bok injury crisis: The alternative options
SPOTLIGHT: Handre Pollard’s horrific knee injury is a major blow for the Springboks, who have lost their starting flyhalf and goal kicker ahead of what is shaping to be an Everest-sized challenge to defend their Rugby Championship crown.
The world champions were already dealing with the loss of locks RG Snyman and Lodewyk de Jager to injury, significantly denting the lineout firepower that dominated the World Cup.
There is an outside chance Eben Etzebeth could recover from a rib injury should the Boks take the field in the SANZAAR tournament.
However, the real challenge is how they deal with the loss of the goal kicking ace tasked with accumulating so many of the Springboks points.
Uncertainty surrounds what shape the Springboks will be in once the Rugby Championship commences – not just from a depth point of view, but the clear challenges around the level of preparation they will have heading into the competition.
If the Springboks turn up to play, credit should be given for their commitment to the cause to help resume international rugby in the Southern Hemisphere again.
It will not resemble the world champion team many are expecting, and expectations should be adjusted as such.
However, this does not rule out the Springboks completely as the bad injury luck they have been dealt so far isn’t a death knell for their campaign.
It has hurt, but not totally curtailed, their chances of winning games with the same formula they used in Japan.
The 6-2 split on the bench used at the World Cup shows how much value is put on the flyhalf position by the Springboks that needs to be replaced following Pollard’s injury.
They did not carry a specialist 10 on the bench like most other test sides, instead relying on the utility value of Frans Steyn to plug into any position as required.
This is not an insignificant fact – they were prepared to lose their starter Pollard in a knockout World Cup game and insert a makeshift flyhalf to finish the job.
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The only other test sides in the knockout rounds that did not carry a specialist 10 on the bench already had two on the park, England with George Ford and Owen Farrell and New Zealand with Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett.
If one of them was lost, an on-field reshuffle would be made to replace them.
The only backs position the Springboks carried specific insurance for was Faf de Klerk, with specialist 9 Herschel Jantjies providing cover on the bench.
The strategy allowed the Springboks to supercharge their interior defence in phase play and the set piece with basically a second forward pack of six waiting in the wings.
Physical exertion is required for little more than a half of rugby by the starters, allowing for more than maximum effort. If injuries do not set in early, the Springboks gain advantages in the trenches as the game goes on.
Having so much power to use up front naturally shapes how they play with ball in hand.
Most attacking launches are centred around dominant carries from Damian de Allende on the first phase before running forwards around the corner flat off 9 for more power carries.
It is an attack built for bullying a way forward, putting less emphasis on a 10 who directs play and offers creativity in attack.
That means the biggest area of concern with the loss of Pollard is the points production off the tee, but there are multiple ready-made options to cover this.
A number of the flyhalf options available to South Africa have demonstrated an ability to kick goals at 80 percent or better in Super Rugby.
The latest is Curwin Bosch, who has proven to be a class operator with the full array of abilities at his disposal. He has all the traits of a flyhalf that could dominate the game in the right system that is build around his natural instincts.
Speed, agility and natural decision-making at the line, Bosch is a triple playmaking threat every time he touches the ball.
It’s not what the Springboks need necessarily, but a valuable asset to have all the same, and he has a monstrous boot both out-of-hand and off the tee.
After taking over from Robert du Preez as the Sharks flyhalf, he was able to kick at 83 percent throughout the 2019 Super Rugby season. This dropped to 76 percent this year in a shortened season, but it did so from a lower sample size as a result.
That man Bosch replaced, now at the Sale Sharks, is inconsistent in other areas of the game, but one aspect where he has excelled at in the past is goal kicking.
During the 2018 Super Rugby season, Du Preez was a prolific point scorer, kicking at 86 percent over the season.
This option is intriguing because after stripping away all the areas of concern, Rob du Preez could nail his core responsibility of knocking over penalties and conversions.
With De Klerk in control of the exits and territorial management, Du Preez could do what is needed of him.
Working against him, however, is that AJ MacGinty currently has the start and goal kicking job with Sale, leaving Du Preez without much game time.
Stormers flyhalf-fullback hybrid Damian Willemse in that same 2018 season kicked a tick below 80 percent, but has since handed over the tee to others. He perhaps has the most dangerous running game of all options.
Lions flyhalf Elton Jantjies, who was used at the World Cup as a secondary 10 option, has maintained a 76-78 percent goal kicking rate over the last few seasons, and ran the Lions’ attack into three Super Rugby finals.
As a player with all the tools, Jantjies has proven to be one South Africa’s best-ever No.10s at Super Rugby level.
In this system, for this specific role the Springboks require at No.10, there are no shortage of options available, even if it means asking them to water down their games to fulfil the role the team needs.
The locking stocks present a more difficult task as losing both the starting options and one of the bench replacements from the World Cup is no short order.
Given that World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit is still struggling with a long-standing leg injury, there might be changes a loose forward as well.