Cape Town – A feeling of dread overcame many South Africans when Fourie du Preez, the last of the country’s undisputed post-isolation generals of scrumhalf play, ventured into the international sunset after the narrow Springbok semi-final defeat to the All Blacks at RWC 2015.
Already past his best and bravely keeping spiralling injury hassles at bay as best he could, Du Preez had nevertheless – and rightly – been deemed too valuable an asset by then national coach Heyneke Meyer to ignore, his instincts and vision more than making up for the gradual loss of explosive pace to his game.
The former Bulls favourite quitting after 76 caps and a Test career spanning some 11 years, meant he went into the file of No 9 legends for a country that had also been treated to the unique virtues just a little earlier of Joost van der Westhuizen (89 Bok appearances, 1993-2003).
Between that world-revered pair, they had provided some 22 years of enormous Bok stability and pedigree in the key berth.
Since then, and despite the swelling experience of someone like Faf de Klerk who had generally been the frontline scrumhalf in a period of grotesquely fluctuating Springbok fortunes before the start of the current Test season, the national team has had a lean, erratic cupboard of resources to choose from.
De Klerk’s shift to Sale in England two years ago after four Super Rugby campaigns for the Lions has made him a less frantic, more tactically-astute customer now: while still not flawless in certain areas, the plucky little dynamo warrants his status as likely frontline Bok No 9 at the outset of looming RWC 2019 in Japan.
Another compatriot, Cobus Reinach, has similarly benefited from exposure to the demands of slower northern rugby climes with Northampton, and forced his way back into the mix for the assault on the Webb Ellis Cup.
Most happily of all, Rassie Erasmus’ broadly resurgent Boks of 2019 boast a perfect balance between street-wisdom and effervescent youth in the slot, considering the stirring emergence as a third factor of Herschel Jantjies, the Stellenbosch-born player who has snaffled three tries in as many appearances for the national side and has the potential (including astonishingly sound temperament for a rookie) to set the World Cup alight.
But if the RWC prospects of the Boks at No 9 look well less worrisome than they might have done toward the end of 2018 and for a couple of years before it, the situation is further enhanced by rosy developments this season at provincial level.
Saturday’s electric Currie Cup semi-final between the Cheetahs and Sharks in Bloemfontein was notable for unusually inspiring displays from both respective starting scrumhalves – Ruan Pienaar of the victorious home outfit and Sanele Nohamba from the ranks of the visitors.
A gaping decade and a half separate them in age terms: Pienaar is a greying, much-travelled 35-year-old with 88 Springbok caps (though the last four years ago), and Nohamba a 20-year-old first-class novice from Alice in the Eastern Cape, albeit notable for his dual representation of SA Schools (2017) and this year’s sterling enough SA U20 outfit.
Yet in their own ways, both contributed fulsomely and constructively to the spectacle – a fast-paced, ding-dong affair until the Cheetahs ran clear, in every sense, in the closing 15 minutes or so.
Nohamba had already been substituted by the time the floodgates suddenly opened cruelly on the KwaZulu-Natalians, but playing against the highly decorated Pienaar earlier seemed to bring out the very best in his sniping, opportunism-conscious skills, especially in the way he deftly worked the blindside at times.
He simply looks a heartening “natural” and lightning-fast operator in his berth, to the extent that enlivening Super Rugby next year (he won’t be the only wunderkind in a Sharks set-up showing a patient, refreshing new focus on youthful vitality) seems a pretty good prospect, despite his mere 1.67m frame and 64kg.
Expect the Sharks’ brains trust to employ the next few months, presumably mostly out of competition, to put a bit more meat to Nohamba’s body if possible, which should only better the likelihood of him announcing himself in a significant way in the southern-hemisphere franchise competition.
Pienaar, of course, is anything but a “prospect” … though he vividly reminded on Saturday that class is permanent as he served as a deeply intelligent conduit for much of the Cheetahs’ impressive front-foot play, kicked decisively out of hand and later when he assumed tee duties, and even demonstrated that his renowned, swerving runs haven’t disappeared with the ravages of time.
The very fact that he signed a slightly unexpected two-year deal back in his town of birth after several years abroad is a healthy development both for the Cheetahs – especially with Pro14 just around the corner, Pienaar so familiar with many of the places they will have to trek to in the European winter – and South African rugby as a whole.
Though he retired from the Test landscape in 2016, players with his depth of wisdom don’t grow on trees, and he will pass on much of it to local scrumhalves (whether more consciously within the Bloemfontein camp, or less intentionally in rival ones) during his fairly generous swansong period.
The scrumhalf landscape in our country? It’s looking a lot more chipper.
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