The flyhalf position in Springbok rugby history holds a certain prestige. It almost seems as if it is reserved for players who fit certain characteristics, characteristics that depict the “South African Rugby Culture”, a culture that comes with a certain message in small print attached to it stating “You dare not change”.
When you look at the likes of Joel Stransky, Butch James and current incumbent of the number, Handre Pollard, you might or might not notice that they have a couple of things in common. One: they are “typical” examples of the model South African flyhalf, the blueprint for young flyhalf’s who have ambitions of following in their footsteps, by wearing the famous Green and Gold jersey with the number 10 on their back. What are these characteristics that make them desirable to the Springbok rugby system? They put their basics first and that makes them reliable. You know their passing game is going to be astute, you know their kicking game, off the hand or the cone is going to be equally as astute, they are also known for their ability to attack the gain line and front up to teams with the meanest defensive lines in world rugby. Some might even go as far as saying those characteristics make them predictable, but if predictability comes with reliability and efficiency, that stitches the team well together, leading them to success then, what could possibly be wrong with that?
The second half of their characteristics come without ball in hand. They are resilient in defence, and have a big heart, that allows them to put their bodies on the line against bigger and more robust opponents, without knowing how favourable the outcome of that will be. But perhaps, the most significant aspect they have in common, is the fact that, they are World Cup winning flyhalfs from different generations of Springbok rugby teams that stuck to the blueprint of the country’s rugby ethos: “bully the opponents with the forwards, do the basics right in the tight backline positions then leave the flair moments to your outside backs”. That is a blueprint that has made South Africa the joint most successful rugby playing nation in the world, so why do away with it? As the old adage goes “if it aint broke, why fix it?”, how could you possibly change a winning formula?
If we travel far enough across the Indian Ocean, we would eventually arrive in New Zealand, South Africa’s fierce rivals, who are the “other” part of the joint most successful rugby playing nations in the world. They have achieved the same amount of World Cup titles as South Africa, while playing a contrasting style of rugby, again, characterized by the attributes of the type of pivot’s they choose to back to conduct the All Black “choir”. But no, this is not going to be another article comparing South Africa to New Zealand Rugby and viewing their style of play as the only blueprint to success. But this is an article that will seek to depict that “it is possible”.
When backed by the playing system and personnel, it is possible to play an alternative style of rugby, back an alternative style flyhalf and still get the desired results. Under normal circumstances, there would’ve been absolutely no need to tinker with a flyhalf choice that was highly instrumental to a system that brought home the most coveted piece of silverware in the game, just under a year ago. But an injury to Pollard has now produced what looks, well at least at face value, as a bit of a flyhalf conundrum for the Boks. But that’s just one way to look at it, in fact that might be how it looks if you are not willing to look beyond its surface area. But if you choose to delve deeper you could probably realize that it is more than just a conundrum, but a potentially rare window of opportunity for South Africa to show its diversity, through its alternative flyhalf options, with the likes of Elton Jantjies, Damian Willemse and Curwin Bosch calmly, yet capably waiting in the wings (well not really in the “wings” but yeah you get what I’m trying to say here)
There can, of course be a strong argument that claims that, under Allister Coetzee the Boks did try changing their style, with Jantjies enjoying the tag of being the main flyhalf, and it did not work out then, in fact, it failed dismally! So what would be different this time? The completely different regime the Springboks have been under, which has bred a good environment for all sorts of players, with different attributes to thrive. In Rassie Erasmus, you have a tinker man, who makes what appear to be big risks from the outside, but very calculated from within the camp and more often than not, they tend to pay off. When he was brave enough to appoint Siya Kolisi as the very first black Test captain of the Republic, that was a big call that would go on to set the tone for the rest of his tenure as coach. The nation watched on anxiously as Erasmus recalled the likes of Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux in 2018, two players who were deemed surplus to requirements by the previous regime, with many thinking they had seen the very last of the duo in a Springbok jersey. Erasmus than brought in three new uncapped wingers two under the age of 25 and one, with just two years of professional rugby under his belt, having not gone through the conventional development routes.
But perhaps, most tellingly what Erasmus was brave enough to do and back fully, was the selection of Cheslin Kolbe. What do all of these factors demonstrate? Erasmus’ bravery and success from it, have vindicated a change of mentality throughout South African rugby circles. For years, it was widely believed that, “if you leave the country we don’t need you, we have too many options within our border so we can easily replace you” yet the overseas contingent, when blended with the cream of what our local unions had to offer, proved pivotal in Webb Ellis and Rugby Championships triumphs last year.
It was also widely believed that extensive Super Rugby experience earns you the trust you need to finally receive a Bok cap, but the likes of Aphiwe Dyantyi, Sbu Nkosi and Makazole Mapimpi all made their Test rugby bows under Erasmus’s tutelage, one winning World Breakthrough Player of the year and the other two going on to play crucial roles as World Cup winners just a year on. Then with the Kolbe call up and subsequent extensive backing, he unearthed a new-found sense of belief in all the exciting, deceptive yet diminutive young talent, that is produced year in, year out in every corner of this diverse country, giving them hope that they too will receive adequate backing should they be deemed good enough, and no longer be disadvantaged by their size.
Those instances might differ from the flyhalf position, its importance and the conversation about it. But before the narrative on those instances was changed through gambles which paid off, they were also topics which would’ve been borderline “off limits ”. More than anything else, perhaps the biggest correlation between them and the flyhalf conversation, is belief and mentality. If new Springbok coach Jaques Nienaber, who is expected to follow the same blueprint as Erasmus, backs the likes of Jantjies,Willemse and Bosch, the same way Erasmus backed the overseas recalls, the inexperienced call up’s and diminutive Kolbe, then South Africa could really flex its diversity on the rest of the world in a scary way! Get this selection right and now the rest of the world wont be able to predict whether they are going to face the physical or skillful South African side in future, and both being equally capable and backed could leave a mind crushing dilemma for the opposition during that weeks training.
Of course there is always that option of playing it safe and resorting to similar alternatives such as Robert du Preez Jnr and possibly the now returned Morne Steyn. However, that could lead to outcries of the Springbok system being just a façade, as it has been Jantjies, Willemse and Bosch who have been in and around the recent Bok set up, serving as backups to Pollard. The fact that they have acquired that status over the years, means a coaching staff lead by Erasmus, a clever and knowledgeable rugby figure, who’s rugby brain works overtime, would’ve surely catered for the event of having to rely on them and subsequently reverting to a game plan suitable to their style of playing flyhalf at some point, and that point may have arrived.
It then becomes an interesting, yet potentially culture changing “stick or twist” situation. You stick? By means of reverting to the two “prototype” flyhalf options who have not been part of the Bok set up in a while, and you would potentially crush all three current options mentally, as it would then seem abundantly clear that, the South African Rugby set up and culture will only ever view players of their attributes, as alternatives in the flyhalf position, and not worthy of the backing to be the “main men”
Or you twist? a move which would infinitely boost Jantjies in knowing that he isn’t just called up as a permanent understudy and there are plans to use him, which could do wonders for his confidence going into the British and Irish Lions Tour and beyond. It would also give Willemse and Bosch hope that there is an actual plan for them in place to finally graduate into Springbok mainstays, while being backed in their preferred position the way they want to play it. Ultimately it could ignite another change in the mentality of future generations who have “unorthodox” flyhalf attributes but still have the required talent to wear that jersey one day, i.e Sacha Mngomezulu.
So, Erasmus and Nienaber do you stick or twist? Do you see this situation at its surface level as a conundrum? Or do you delve deeper and see it as an opportunity? The culture of South African rugby could be banking on this one…