England’s Mike Brown may have drawn plenty of plaudits for his performances during the Six Nations, but he failed to shine for the Red Rose in New Zealand and the continued form and try-scoring prowess of Willie le Roux makes him the most dangerous full-back in international rugby at the moment after another defence-shredding display. His elusive running, clever chip kicks and ambition to play off the scrum-half allowed the 24-year-old to rip through Wales earlier this month, with a try and three assists in the first Test. And he did plenty of damage against Scotland with a try and a hand in others, something he did in their 28-0 win over Scotland at Murrayfield in November, then running in an intercept try before sending through JP Pietersen after the restart with a trademark gallop through the defence and a kick through. With the Rugby Championship just six weeks away, it sets up the mouth-watering prospect of battles with Australia’s Israel Folau and New Zealand’s Ben Smith or Israel Dagg with le Roux becoming one of the first names on the South Africa team sheet. His stats are impressive: 15 Test caps, seven tries. That’s without the hand he has in so many tries. On current showing, he, and South Africa, have the form that could see them push reigning champions New Zealand even harder for the Rugby Championship crown, and that is with almost a team of players out injured or unavailable for selection. It’s also a form that could see them to a Rugby World Cup final, if it was three rather than 15 months away.
Only the most foolhardy of optimists would have believed that a weakened Scotland team could have come close to defeating the Springboks, also heavily depleted by injuries and the match taking place outside of the IRB international window. It was a disaster waiting to happen when Scotland confirmed their globe-trotting tour taking in three matches in North and South America before a gruelling four-flight, two-day journey from Córdoba, Argentina to Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Predictions ranged from South Africa to win by 20, with some suggesting 40+ was more likely. Very few freebies were dished up for Vern Cotter’s side. It turned out to be 55-6: an eight-try mauling; an absolute demolition—incredibly, worse than their 51-3 defeat by Wales in Cardiff three months ago when they played much of that match with 14 men. England aren’t the only nation bemoaning a troubling summer tour schedule which saw their best players unavailable for the biggest of Tests, but having to cobble together summer opponents is a problem that can’t be fixed for Scotland until discussions take place for tours from 2020. A longstanding legacy of the Andy Robinson era lives on as England, Wales, Ireland and France continue to take top billing against the big four southern hemisphere nations through to 2019 while Scotland, by self-determination, are still left to pick up scraps from anyone who will have them. With a lot of their best players increasingly courted by English and French clubs, playing a standalone match against the top sides outside the international window will rarely, if ever, produce a result Scotland can be proud of.
It’s the headache that all head coaches are partial to and, with the emergence of several new faces in the famous green jersey this month, Heyneke Meyer certainly has troubling selections ahead. There may be fresh political pressure for South African rugby to integrate more black players into the Test team, but talent should always come before sentimentality. The world’s second-best Test nation appear to have a bright future if the performances this month of their emerging talent is anything to go by. The Springboks head coach was typically animated throughout the match as his young charges produced a wonderful game of running rugby. Handré Pollard, earlier this month leading the Baby Boks to the Junior World Championship final in Auckland, looked assured on debut against Scotland and is a star in the making. Arguably with plenty of time and space to control the game against weary opponents, he looked solid under pressure and is, in all likelihood, a long-term option at outside-half. Likewise, Lood de Jager —just 21 and 6ft 10in—impressed as he scored twice against the Scots, including a 40-metre canter to the line. Another player who has seen his chance come about through injuries and the loss of European-based players, but he hasn’t looked out of his depth in the Test arena against Wales or Scotland and would be unlucky to miss out in a place when the Rugby Championship returns. The same can be said of Blitzbokke star Cornal Hendricks, a match-winner who has not looked out of place on the right wing or, fellow newcomer, Lvazi Mvovo, who deputised for Bryan Habana. Both have some way to go to emulate the try-scoring feats of Habana, but they have laid down a marker this month. Credit, too, should go to centres JP Pietersen and Jan Serfontein. Shifted from the wing to outside centre, Pietersen has looked solid in defence and still acts as a menacing winger in attack while Serfontein, a former IRB Junior World Player of the Year, has coped admirably after being thrust into the spotlight.
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BIOGRAPHY: Cesc Fabregas