Opinion: The way forward for the Springboks’ fly-half crisis

Dylan Coetzee
Springboks: Johan Goosen, Damian Willemse and Manie Libbok.

The Springboks fly-half crisis took another blow after Handre Pollard’s return from injury lasted only 27 minutes in his debut for Leicester Tigers.

Pollard’s return to the field came earlier than expected but saw him limping off in his first Premiership appearance suggesting the playmaker was not quite as ready for action as the club thought.

Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber will have to search for solutions yet again as the world champions begin their tour of the Northern Hemisphere next month.

Planet Rugby breaks down the potential candidates to build depth at 10 for the Springboks in November and going forward to the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.

Damian Willemse

The exceptionally talented utility back is the obvious choice for Nienaber, having slotted into fly-half with aplomb against Australia and would have remained in the role for the remainder of the Rugby Championship if he did not suffer a concussion against Argentina in the penultimate round.

Willemse is a dynamic runner, a solid distributor and kicks cleverly out of hand. Having spent his school rugby days and the beginning of his professional career at fly-half the Stormers star has plenty to offer South Africa in the role and can be expected to start in November.

However, there are downsides to his selection as Willemse had well and truly nailed down the starting role at fullback after an outstanding series against Wales in July. Furthermore, the switch to fly-half hinders growth at 15, a position where he looked set to kick on at Test level.

Another shortfall is the 24-year-old’s goalkicking which is average at best, and the Springboks rely on sound goalkicking to keep the scoreboard ticking, especially in knockout rugby. However, it should not be Willemse’s problem, as better planning and squad selection would have meant he would not need to step in a fly-half. Nevertheless, this fact will be a massive consideration for Nienaber and co.

Elton Jantjies

The veteran playmaker has had his name thrown around for all the wrong reasons in 2022, from being in hot water over an incident on a commercial flight to an alleged affair with team dietitian Zeenat Simjee both of which have cast huge doubt on his future with the Springboks.

Irrespective of the off-field drama, Jantjies has not shown good form in green and gold for some time and struggled against Wales in July, resulting in him being replaced at half-time.

The pivot’s best rugby came during his time at the Lions, and on the front foot, Jantjies has been known to carve defences wide open, but this has never truly translated into Test level, where his style of play does not gel with the Springboks game plan.

Jantjies is a World Cup winner and has been a hero for South Africa on occasion, but his time may well be up for the Springboks.

Johan Goosen

A supremely talented player who burst onto the professional scene at a young age shooting all the way up to Test level before being absolutely plagued by injury.

Goosen should be a player with a boatload of Test caps, but his body never allowed it. His return to South Africa with the Bulls in 2021 sparked excitement around a Springbok recall as the former Cheetah settled into the fly-half role under Jake White beautifully. However, on the cusp of selection, the playmaker succumbed to yet another long-term injury.

The 30-year-old is good enough, that is not in doubt, but it is simply unrealistic to rely on such an injury-prone player when building towards a World Cup, particularly given the crisis the Springboks are facing. What South Africa needs now is a secure and dependable option, and it is truly sad that Goosen cannot offer that.

Manie Libbok

At 25, the fly-half is already well travelled after underwhelming stints with the Bulls and Sharks, before finding his feet at the Stormers.

Under John Dobson, Libbok has been given licence to play, to attack and to express himself, which has offered a new lease of life in his career. The pivot’s ability to bring the best out of those around him contributed heavily to the exponential rise of Willemse and the Springbok recall of Warrick Gelant; two players he partnered with to power the Stormers to the inaugural United Rugby Championship title.

The Stormer has quick and sharp feet, kicks off both sides, oozes vision and is a sharpshooter off the tee. He has everything required to make the step up to Test level.

Libbok does not even need to start in any of the Tests in November, but he certainly needs to be on the plane heading north. Play him in the mid-week games against Munster and/or Bristol Bears and throw him on the bench in a Test match or two. It is absolutely crucial the Springboks develop at least one other specialist fly-half besides Pollard to travel to France next year.

Chris Smith

The Bulls fly-half is in the same situation as Libbok, having proved his worth in the URC on several occasions and knocking on the door for inclusion in the Springboks’ wider squad at least.

Smith offers different attributes to Libbok and is more a mould of Morne Steyn. The pivot will execute his fundamentals well and will be able to manage games at the highest level in time, making him a safe option to consider going forward.

The 28-year-old will need to grow and develop more, but that needs to be done within the Springboks’ wider structures.

Nienaber will be considering the World Cup in every decision he makes. Start with Willemse as the first-choice outside of Pollard and take either Libbok or Smith to the Northern Hemisphere.

In an ideal world, Goosen would be a perfect candidate, but it makes no sense to replace one injury-prone fly-half with another.

There is much to consider for the coach for an issue that could have been avoided by initially selecting an extra playmaker in the wider squad for the 2022 season.

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