Opinion: ‘Giant’ return could bolster Bok depth at 12

Date published: January 10 2022 - Jon Cardinelli

A Springbok squad that boasts André Esterhuizen as well as Damian de Allende will be doubly dangerous in the lead-up to the 2023 Rugby World Cup, writes Jon Cardinelli.

Esterhuizen has excelled for the attack-minded Harlequins since moving to south-west London in 2020. While he was previously categorised as a somewhat limited gainline specialist during his time with the Boks and Sharks, he is now widely recognised as a passing, kicking and breakdown threat for one of the leading teams in the Premiership.

Is a Springbok recall imminent? When I interviewed Esterhuizen recently, the straight-talking number 12 revealed that he was yet to hear from the Bok coaches about the possibility of representing South Africa in 2022.

One can understand why the Boks might feel that they are well covered at 12 at present. In terms of the national pecking order, Esterhuizen is neither the first-choice inside option nor the top-performing South African 12 plying his trade in Europe.

De Allende has been a standout for Munster over the past couple of seasons. In 2021, he was one of South Africa’s most influential players over the course of a Test campaign that yielded a series win against the British & Irish Lions, and an important victory against the All Blacks.

By many accounts, De Allende finished 2021 as the best number 12 in Test rugby. De Allende and Lukhanyo Am were universally lauded as the game’s leading midfield combination.

Bok coach Jacques Nienaber will select De Allende and Am for the big matches in 2022. He will bank on that influential combination when the world champions travel to France in 2023 to defend their title.

Injuries are a part of Test rugby, however, and it’s possible that one or even both of those players will be sidelined at some point over the next two seasons.

While Nienaber was fortunate that neither of his premier centres broke down in 2021, he must know that his luck is bound to run out at some point.

De Allende in particular endured a heavy workload in 2021, starting 11 Tests as well as two matches for the SA ‘A’ side. Frans Steyn wore the 12 jersey in the Boks’ other two fixtures against Georgia and Argentina.

Springbok midfield matches for South Africa in 2021*

*Includes SA ‘A’ matches v British & Irish Lions and Bulls
** Kriel started two games at outside centre, three at wing

Steyn’s contribution over the past three seasons has been immense. While he has proved a quality starting option at 12, his real value is in his ability to cover multiple backline positions from the bench, and to give the Boks the option of a six-two split of forwards and backs among the reserves. Steyn’s versatility allowed the Boks to persist with this selection tactic across the 2019 World Cup knockouts.

It remains to be seen whether Steyn will push through to the 2023 World Cup, though. When asked about his future with the national side, the 34-year-old admitted that the next tournament may be a bridge too far.

Steyn made his Test debut as a 19-year-old back in 2006. He has played a lot of rugby – for various clubs in South Africa and France – over the ensuing 15 years. His body, which has held up admirably in the latter stages of his career, may well betray him in the next two seasons.

Last year, Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus considered an alternative to Steyn in the number 23 jersey. Damian Willemse has the ability to play fly-half, centre, wing and full-back. It’s for this reason that he was backed in the role of utility back for some of the bigger games.

And yet, the Bok coaches have done less to develop an alternative to De Allende at 12. Who is going to slot in if De Allende is injured and if Steyn is no longer up to the demands of Test rugby?

Consider who the various Bok coaches have deployed as their starting 12s over the past five seasons. When Allister Coetzee took the coaching reins in 2016, De Allende was backed as the first choice 12.

Springbok inside centres (2016-2021)

Over the course of Coetzee’s turbulent two-year tenure, however, five different number 12s were used.

Jan Serfontein featured prominently in some big wins for the Boks in 2017 before joining Montpellier in France. The veteran Juan de Jongh was recalled for a spell in 2016, while Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Francois Venter received limited opportunities for a team beset by problems.

Erasmus had a clearer plan for the Boks across the 2018 and 2019 seasons. He rotated two matchday squads. He backed De Allende as the first-choice 12, and the less experienced Esterhuizen as the second choice.

By the time the World Cup arrived, Erasmus had two experienced specialists at his disposal, as well as the versatile Steyn. Ultimately he picked one specialist in De Allende, as well as Steyn for utility value.

It remains to be seen what would transpire in 2023 if all of the options are fit and available. History may well repeat itself, with De Allende travelling to France as the specialist 12 and Steyn or Willemse as the utility option.

But there is no guarantee that those players will be fit and available. This is why Nienaber must experiment with other options over the next two seasons to ensure that he is prepared for a worst-case scenario.

As things stand, the Boks have no obvious alternative at 12 in their current squad.

Willemse burst onto the South African rugby scene in 2017. There was a lot of debate about the then 19-year-old’s best position. Former Bok coach Jake White rated him highly, and compared him to All Blacks fly-half Beauden Barrett due to his pace and agility.

When Willemse joined the Boks in 2018, however, he was used primarily at full-back, and made his starting debut at number 15 against England at Twickenham. In 2021, his only two starts were in that position.

The Bok coaches have spoken before about Willemse as a potential inside centre option. The versatile player did slot in at second receiver a few times when De Allende was off the park in 2021.

It will be interesting to see where and how Willemse is used in 2022, both by the Boks and the Stormers. The Cape-based franchise have Rikus Pretorius, a promising 22-year-old inside centre who featured in a Springbok trial match back in 2020, and former Bok full-back Warrick Gelant in their ranks. The latter may have played for the Boks in 2021 if he didn’t sustain a serious leg injury.

Another option is to move Handré Pollard to 12 and Elton Jantjies to fly-half. This combination has worked well in recent years when Jantjies has come off the bench and Pollard has shifted one channel out – at the expense of De Allende.

Nienaber could also deploy Am at 12 in an emergency. Assistant coach Mzwandile Stick has previously stated that Am has the skills to be a success in that channel.

The least disruptive choice, of course, is another specialist. There is no more obvious alternative to De Allende – in terms of physical attributes and skill set, as seen in recent performances for Harlequins – than Esterhuizen.

Nienaber knows what he has in De Allende. The player has started at 12 for South Africa 37 times since 2016 (58% of the Boks’ Tests). Furthermore, he has been backed to start in that channel in 28 out of 39 Tests since Erasmus and Nienaber returned to the Bok set-up in early 2018.

Nienaber also knows what he has in Steyn. What he doesn’t know for certain, however, is whether the aging player will be the same force in 2023.

One way or another, Nienaber will have to experiment in 2022. As a retreaded fly-half, Willemse may provide the Boks with more attacking and kicking options from the 12 channel, and ultimately the Boks may develop an alternative approach to the successful game plan that relies on De Allende’s specific skill set.

Esterhuizen, however, could prove a like-for-like replacement for De Allende at number 12. It’s time to take out an insurance policy on the latter, and to give Esterhuizen 2.0 the opportunity to show what he can offer in the green and gold.