Cape Town – Might both Springbok match-day scrumhalves pay a price for their ineffectual displays against Ireland in Dublin?
Whether coach Heyneke Meyer takes such an extreme step remains to be seen, but the fact remains that South Africa were notably poorly served in this key slot at Aviva Stadium and it contributed to their humbling 29-15 defeat on Saturday and muted, out-of-sync collective display from the backline.
Francois Hougaard had a shocker, in short, but when Cobus Reinach put him out of his misery from the bench before the hour mark, the Sharks player didn’t look convincing either.
Hardly helped by Hougaard, in particular, labouring in that critical department for a No 9 – sound handling of the ball — confirmation was only served that both players are snipers far more than they are tactical maestros and deft decision-makers.
The latter is a much more necessary requirement, generally speaking, on the softer, slower pitches of the northern hemisphere, and the Boks have got to bite the bullet in that regard for the next few weeks and three remaining tour matches because of the absence of both Fourie du Preez and Ruan Pienaar from their plans.
The third scrumhalf in the travelling party, Jano Vermaak – summoned a few days ago after Pienaar failed to get fitness clearance – is also not really renowned for the sort of generalship Du Preez is particularly valued for, but there must be at least a chance that he will leapfrog both Hougaard and Reinach for a start against England at Twickenham on Saturday.
It would be only a fourth cap and second Bok start for the former Lions and Bulls livewire, but he boasts plenty of first-class experience as a 29-year-old and what may be attractive to the brains trust is that he plies his trade in nearby France for Toulouse these days, so he is increasingly versed in European conditions.
There is a case for not hitting panic buttons, and allowing Hougaard to redeem himself at “Twickers” – remember that he was looking more like his effervescent old self in the later stages of the Castle Rugby Championship – but he is also a bit of a confidence player and may not be feeling too chipper on that front now.
England has become a very important game after the first-up setback in Dublin, as a second tour reverse in succession would be a sobering development with next year’s World Cup in mind, undoing much of the hitherto fine work of the Meyer regime in consistently winning north of the equator.
As the dust (though there isn’t too much of that in lush Ireland) settles on the Dublin loss – I believe it would be over-emotional to call it “debacle” – it is worth bearing in mind that all runs come to an end some time, and the Boks had been an admirable 6/6 in the wins column in these climes under the current coach’s stewardship until this result.
There has been tons of predictable hysteria on social media since the setback – sack the coach, captain, baggage-master etc – but the more sober of Bok observers will agree with Meyer when he said afterwards that it was far better for his charges to experience this kind of wake-up call now than at the World Cup.
They are back as mere mortals after the heartening Ellis Park victory over the All Blacks, and the men with real mettle among the Bok crop will be expected to bounce back vigorously and urgently at Twickenham.
Wholesale alterations to the Bok XV are unlikely, as it can be just as counter-productive after a loss to jerk a knee or bow to often naive, apoplectic and provincialist public sentiment.
But apart from the scrumhalf conundrum, Meyer might also have to consider making use at the outset this time of street-wise JP Pietersen, a World Cup 2007 winner, who showed greater hunger at right wing when he came off the bench in Dublin than the largely anonymous Cornal Hendricks.
He will also, as he revisits the video nasty, receive confirmation that the Bok pack in most instances did enough for the Boks to have won, so the eight may receive a full reprieve.
Those under some pressure, however, include blindside flank Oupa Mohoje, whose callowness was apparent against the frenzied Irish, and maybe even the coach’s staple No 4 lock favourite Eben Etzebeth, struggling to reproduce the levels of aggression and skill he achieved in two prior Test seasons.
People who suspect that the Jean de Villiers-Jan Serfontein midfield alliance is a less-than-ideal fielding of two specialist inside centres may have had some fuel added to their argument in Dublin … but remember that these two had also been having some pretty good games together very recently.
By Rob Houwing – Sport24 chief writer
Follow the chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing