Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus can sleep easy when he ponders many positions in his team at night‚ but if his thoughts drift to scrumhalf‚ he might wake up in a cold sweat.
With Faf de Klerk unavailable for Saturday clash against England at Twickenham – a match that could sink the entire tour if it goes wrong – Erasmus’ options at halfback are slim.
De Klerk and others such as fullback Willie le Roux‚ wing Cheslin Kolbe and looseforward Francois Louw are restricted from playing because the Test falls outside World Rugby’s official Test window.
The window opens on Sunday and continues throughout November‚ meaning those players are eligible for Tests against France‚ Scotland and Wales.
There is adequate back up for the likes of Louw‚ Kolbe and Le Roux‚ but De Klerk’s absence is going to be keenly felt.
Embrose Papier‚ Ivan van Zyl and Louis Schreuder – the three scrumhalves selected to tour – have a combined eight Test caps between them and only Van Zyl‚ with three caps‚ has actually played a full Test.
Van Zyl started against Wales in Washington in June and played all 80 minutes with Papier coming on as a wing replacement for Makazole Mapimpi in that match.
Papier has four caps‚ and has played a total of 21 minutes in Test rugby‚ of which only 12 minutes have been at scrumhalf.
The other nine minutes were as a wing – for Mapimpi in Washington and for Aphiwe Dyantyi against Argentina in Durban.
Papier has been an unused substitute three times this year‚ twice used as a wing‚ and only twice as a halfback.
It seems to be a clear indication that Erasmus does not trust Papier as a Test scrumhalf. He might like the youngster as a rugby player‚ but he isn’t convinced about him in the critical halfback role.
Collectively the current trio of scrumhalves on tour with the Boks have played a total of 122 minutes of Test rugby‚ or one-and-a-half matches.
Schreuder only has nine Test minutes under his belt‚ earned in last year’s November loss to Wales in Cardiff. But at 28‚ he has 96 Super Rugby caps to his name and over 60 Currie Cup caps.
He also captained the Sharks to the Currie Cup title at Newlands last weekend. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him start at Twickenham this weekend.
But even if Schreuder did start‚ the Boks have to take on England without a proven Test No 9. No wonder Erasmus is concerned.
“We are thin there (at scrumhalf)‚” Erasmus conceded when addressing the media in London.
“It’s just one of those cycles that we’re going through where we don’t have a lot of experienced nines.
“Playing against England‚ under pressure in a full stadium‚ will be a new experience for some of the players and it will provide me with some good answers.
“The English are good and physical‚ they are strong in the mauls and set phases‚ as well as on defence. They can vary their game and that’s the biggest lesson we learnt from our defeat in Cape Town in June.
“All the players that play in the English Premiership are not available‚ because the Test is outside the international window. The Japanese players can play‚ but the French players aren’t available as well.
“When we agreed to this Test match‚ we knew we were going to be without certain players. But there are some positive spin offs — not just financially — like getting another Test before the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
“With guys like Faf and Willie (Le Roux) not available‚ it does put pressure on us in terms of results.
“In June we played England with an outside center and two wingers with no caps. We are a bit thin going through a period of not having a lot of experienced scrumhalves.
“But Ivan and Embrose have been in the system since the beginning of the season‚ so it’s not a matter of them having to learn everything from scratch.”