Cape Town – If there really is no time like the present, then the Springboks should clear the way for young Damian Willemse to start at problematic flyhalf against Australia in the Rugby Championship at Brisbane in just under a fortnight.
Put it this way: the former Paul Roos wunderkind currently seems no less attractive an option than either Handre Pollard, the beleaguered incumbent, or ever-fickle Elton Jantjies for the pivotal berth after the Boks took a hefty torpedo-hit to the hull on Saturday in their quest for triumph – or at least a lofty finish – in this year’s tournament.
A salient feature of the unexpectedly clear-cut 32-19 reverse to Argentina in Mendoza was the now fairly experienced Pollard having a second personal stinker in a row against the moderate Pumas.
His place-kicking, especially, just seems all over the show at present and it has impacted other aspects of his armoury.
Clearly his confidence has taken a knock and whether he will be ready to suddenly put it all together again on the other side of the world against the Wallabies – in an old hoodoo city for South African rugby – is a matter for worrisome conjecture.
There are several selection dilemmas for coach Rassie Erasmus to grapple with ahead of the Brisbane date (the Boks trail 10-1 in post-isolation Test bragging rights there) but No 10, especially, has become a lot more fluid again than he and many supporters of the national team would like.
Erasmus seemed fully justified in retaining Pollard after the Durban game against the Pumas, on the reasonable expectation that the 24-year-old would atone for his blemishes, particularly off the tee.
But he was broadly erratic and indecisive again in Mendoza, despite certain redeeming features, and massively outplayed by his sublime opposite number Nicolas Sanchez.
The thorny issue for Erasmus is this: if he elects to recall Jantjies for Suncorp Stadium, it will look a little too much, to some observers, like a case of going “backwards” to (try to) go forward.
Lions stalwart Jantjies, after all, isn’t exactly oozing conviction himself after a handful of error-strewn Bok outings of his own in recent times – plus another stuttering performance on a big occasion when his franchise lost the Super Rugby final in Christchurch.
So with Bok stocks having tumbled markedly again, is there anything to lose by bringing a new dimension to the position in the form of hot-stepping Willemse?
An appealing aspect of the 20-year-old Stormers/WP player is that his trade certainly isn’t curtailed to “silky stuff”: he is physically equipped in a channel where there can be plenty of heat, given his respectable height and almost 90kg, and shown no lack of heart defensively at times when operating one tier down from Test rugby.
He also wouldn’t be tossed too remorselessly into the deep end against the Australians – an outfit similarly shrouded in fragility after successive whippings from the All Blacks – as he got just over quarter an hour of exposure off the bench in each of the Durban and Mendoza clashes for a valuable taste of Test combat.
If Erasmus wanted a bit of “security” alongside the rookie if he felt brave enough to start him, too, he should seriously contemplate shifting Pollard one slot wider to the inside centre role, where he is not a complete stranger.
The Bulls man usually makes his tackles sturdily enough, and having two renowned “footballers” alongside each other can be a pressure-reliever, mentally, for both parties.
Pollard could always be called into the flyhalf berth in certain situations, and Willemse has the natural talent to be more versatile than some may even imagine.
It is not as though No 12 is emphatically glued down for the Boks: Andre Esterhuizen did some solid enough donkeywork in the Mendoza near-nightmare but question marks will linger over his creative and spatial-awareness side of things …
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