Much like the well known slogan from a certain TV series, one thing is certain this year: The Rugby World Cup is coming.
It’s always there, lurking in the back of our minds and we know that sending anything less than our best players may be the difference between victory and defeat.
Although Rassie Erasmus, who is a notoriously detailed planner, should be fairly settled on his World Cup group by now, we have seen how easily one injury can disrupt a coach’s plans.
Losing the game breaking ability of Damian McKenzie will no doubt be a huge loss for All Black coach Steve Hansen for example.
There certainly are some players plying their trade in both the Super Rugby and the Pro14 competitions who are knocking on Rassie’s door at the moment though.
Much has been said this past week about Herschel Jantjies outperforming the Bok squad incumbents of Embrose Papier and Ivan van Zyl this season. From playing for UWC in the Varsity Shield competition a couple of seasons ago to establishing himself as the first choice scrumhalf at the Stormers, Jantjies’ rise to the top has been rapid.
He offers a similar style of play to the Bok first choice, Faf de Klerk: snappy service, probing forays around the ruck fringes, defensive aggro that belies his slighter-than-most frame and an engine that taps straight into the Brulpadda oilfields.
Where these two players thrive in high-paced games, past world cups have shown that a scrumhalf who is capable of controlling the pace of the game is worth his weight in gold.
There will probably never be anyone who can do this like Fourie du Preez or Joost van der Westhuizen could though, so it may be better to double down on what is available rather than wish for something that can’t be found. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, right?
I have been similarly impressed by the shifts being put in by Shaun Venter in the Pro14. It astounds me that a scrumhalf with his pace and power, consistently on display for the Cheetahs over a number of seasons now, has not seen him at least mentioned as a candidate for higher honours.
The fact that he has kept his starting berth as scrumhalf, while regular team captain Tian Meyer was moved to the wing for their clash against the Kings, shows how highly he is rated by the Cheetahs brains trust.
Andisa Ntsila from the Kings has been my favourite uncapped loose forward in South Africa since 2016. He had a stellar season last year and was, I felt, unlucky not to get included in the Bok squad for their end of year tour.
I see him as one of the only true ball playing eighth-man we have in the country, in the same mould as Keiran Read and Bobby Skinstad. He has the pace to break lines, the skill to form that mythical link between the pack and the backs, while he also does not shy away from the donkeywork required from a loosie.
Admittedly, he has not been as prolific this year after suffering from injury setbacks but I am excited to see what he delivers in the Currie Cup once he becomes a regular starter for the Kings again.
Love him or hate him, Curwin Bosch was a standout performer for the Sharks in their first tour game against the Waratahs.
The much maligned fly-half delivered a cool headed performance which Rassie, who we know is a fan of mature flyhalves, would have found pleasing. In a game that had the feel of a World Cup script to it, Bosch kept the dominant Sharks pack, that was led by the Du Preez twins, in New-South Wales territory and allowed them to apply pressure on their opposition.
Having played at fullback in previous excursions this season, Bosch again demonstrated his lethal ability to break defences apart while still offering safe hands under the high ball and a cultured yet sizeable boot. The utility back’s showings confirm the transition of the touted youngster from schoolboy and age group levels to Super Rugby and would certainly have made Rassie consider a space for the Durban man in his squad.
When speaking about players who crack defences open, one has to mention Dillyn Leyds. Whether operating from fullback or wing, Leyds has been irrepressible for the Stormers over the past four seasons. He demonstrated his prowess on the counter attack in both the Rebels game, when he scored himself and the Bulls game, when Jantjies benefitted with the finish. The Stormers’ silky skills ensure that those around him will benefit from the opportunities he creates. With the Stormers showing glimpses of what their fans will say has been their true potential all along, I am expecting some more fireworks to come from Leyds and the Stormers back three as a whole.
Operating alongside a well know magic-man himself, it is a salivating prospect to think about what a back-three comprised of Willie le Roux and Dylan Leyds and a deadly finisher in the form of Makazole Mapimpi or Aphiwe Dyanti would conjure when operating at full tilt for the Boks.
Having managed to stay injury free for much of this season, Lizo Gqoboka has also made a strong claim to the Bok jersey after relinquishing it late last year. His powerful display this past weekend against the Stormers and Springbok loose-head Frans Malherbe, showed that Gqoboka was hungry to make a statement to the Springbok coaches. Along with Trevor Nyakane, he was responsible for the Bulls holding their own against a Bok laden Stormers pack. He should also be commended for his work in the loose. Gqoboka is a regular ball carrier and has an elaborate step for a big man, which saw him chalk up around 40 running meters thanks to a nice break in the first quarter of the game at Newlands.
There are plenty of positions for which possible Bok bolters can be expected for the World Cup and attention should also be drawn to the areas where performances are less than inspiring.
One of the main areas of concern this year has been in the centres, where Jessie Kriel has been the only current regular Green and Gold centre who has delivered the steady performances we have come to expect from a Bok.
Damian de Allende has only started looking like his usual self during his game against the Bulls, while Lukhanyo Am has been blowing hot and cold, much like the Sharks have, for the season so far.
To close off the list of underperforming centres is the Shark’s inside centre, Andre Esterhuizen. The Sharks number 12 started the season well enough but has since slid back into a one dimensional crash-ball player. This begs the question that if the current centres happen to lose their edge during the World Cup, who will be able to take their place?
I believe that Ruan Nel was being kept on the fringes by Rassie for exactly such a purpose but he was also struggling to find form before being hampered by a recent injury. This may prompt Rassie to play one of his extra flyhalves, either Damian Willemse or Bosch at flyhalf and Pollard at inside centre to shore up the midfield.
One thing which is sure is that with less than five months to go before the World Cup kicks off, the race for squad positions will keep heating up and those jockeying for positions will need to bring their A-Game for the rest of the season.