For years, the inside-centre role in South Africa was mainly about bashing the ball up.
They were the sacrificial lambs on attack, the guys who were supposed to provide the momentum so that other runners could also have a crack from front-foot ball to try to suck in defenders.
But it’s no coincidence that when the Springboks had a ‘second flyhalf’ in that position they ended up winning the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and in 2007.
Hennie le Roux, also a superb flyhalf, was the Boks’ inside centre en route to their World Cup win in 1995. He was chosen ahead of Pieter Muller, a hard-tackling, straight-running centre, because he was tactically and technically very smart.
Le Roux, however, had his Transvaal team-mate, the tough-as-nails Japie Mulder, next to him to do the dirty work in the midfield. The Boks used Mulder when they wanted to play direct.
Frans Steyn’s ambulance job at No 12 during the 2007 World Cup when Jean de Villiers got injured in the very first match of the tournament was also a key factor in South Africa’s triumph in France.
Steyn is such a talented player, and he can probably play in every position in the backline. He has the size to be direct, but, because he grew up as a flyhalf, he also has the game awareness and the distribution skills to hurt the opposition tactically.
If you combine that with his canon of a right boot — with the ability to kick 60m penalties and drop goals — then the Boks had a potent concoction to leave the opposition punch-drunk.
During Allister Coetzee’s tenure as Bok coach he has primarily used Damian de Allende and Jan Serfontein in the No 12 jersey, while the Lions’ big inside centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg also got a look-in during the 2016 end-of-year tour.
De Allende was Coetzee’s preferred inside centre in 2016, even though he was way off his game because of an ankle injury that really disrupted his pre-season. After a top breakout season the year before, the Stormers man didn’t produce the linebreaks and the offloads that made him such a dangerous customer in 2015.
Serfontein was good this year without being spectacular in a Springbok backline that didn’t quite get going, especially in the Rugby Championship. Serfontein, who was also turned into a bit of a basher after his skilful teenage play, is slowly getting back to the player who stepped past defenders and put players into space.
But none one of those players have really set the world alight in the position. Both Serfontein and Allende have played well in patches, but haven’t brought that consistency to the party.
With the next World Cup still some way away, it wouldn’t hurt Coetzee or the Boks to see what other options are available at No 12, especially if one looks at the option of having a ‘second flyhalf’ at inside centre.
This option at No 12 wouldn’t be a bad idea in the expected wet conditions in Europe in November and December. Especially a right-footed kicker, as the current incumbent flyhalf, Elton Jantjies, and fullback, Andries Coetzee, are both lefties.
Frans Steyn would definitely be an option, especially because he has played a lot of rugby in the No 12 jersey for Montpellier in France over the last few years. Steyn was part of the Bok group earlier this year for the France series, and had a couple of cameos off the bench, but was then dropped for the Rugby Championship.
Steyn is just too talented to be ignored by the Bok selectors, while his experience would be worth its weight in gold at this point of the team’s development. I’m not quite sure where his head is at in terms of his international future, but Steyn offers such a lot that it’s actually a bit of a waste to see him in the wilderness.
Handré Pollard is the other option at inside centre. The Bulls man has all the attributes of top-class No 12, and he also shone in that position for the South African U20 side.
Pollard is a big boy who can attack the line with his physicality to get a team on the front foot. But he also has lovely feet, great distribution skills and one of the sweetest right boots in South Africa.
The Boks need a jack of all trades in the No 12 jersey, a versatile player who can run, pass and kick. A second flyhalf. There are more than enough options for Coetzee. It’s now up to him to see who can fit in the Bok puzzle.