DURBAN – A Player who will undoubtedly be under the Springbok spotlight during Rainbow Cup SA is the effervescent Sharks fullback Aphelele Fassi, who enjoyed a startling performance against the Stormers last week in the opening round.
While Willie le Roux is always going to be the first-choice No 15 for the series against the British and Irish Lions, injuries happen, and the back-up options in every position are as closely explored as the starting positions.
The vastly experienced Le Roux had a troubled World Cup campaign until the final, where he showed his class by delivering an exemplary performance when it truly mattered.
But if he gets crocked, who is next in line? It needs to be considered that the Test series against the Lions will be an excruciatingly tight, high-pressure affair, and with the likes of Owen Farrell, Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray certain to be probing the backfield for space with searching kicks, the fullback position cannot be for the faint of heart, nor for a player vulnerable under the high ball or lacking kicking skills.
A conservative option would be to back up Le Roux with 67-Test veteran Frans Steyn. The Free Stater was the fullback when the Boks beat the Lions in 2009 (and also won the Tri Nations), and few can kick a ball further from the back than the hefty Steyn.
The trouble is that the 34-year-old is slow, and a carthorse compared to the likes of Fassi, Damian Willemse and another possible choice, Dylan Leyds, and Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus are probably still regarding Steyn as a super-sub that can cover most positions in the backline.
With Bulls first-choice fullback Gio Aplon a long-term injury, Fassi and Willemse are the leading candidates to back up Le Roux.
Willemse has played six Tests, and his last match for the Boks was at fullback against Canada in the World Cup, and he now finds himself back in that position for his province after a long trial at flyhalf proved inconclusive.
Willemse, still just 22, is wonderfully mercurial but can also be erratic. He is not yet the finished product, but then
Fassi is hardly there either.
Fassi’s counter-attacking play from the back was the catalyst of much of the Sharks’ enterprising play when they were leading Super Rugby last February and March. He was earmarked to play the (cancelled) Test match against Georgia last June, and was to be in the greater plans for the Rugby Championship.
And then a week before rugby resumed post lockdown, Fassi severely injured his shoulder in training and was out for three months, making his comeback just before Christmas in the Currie Cup.
His coach at the Sharks, Sean Everitt, has said they have worked extensively on the youngsters’ shortcomings, mostly his kicking and his tackle completion.
It is these areas that will be under close scrutiny when the Sharks play the Lions in Durban on Saturday, and onwards in the Rainbow Cup SA because we saw in the Stormers match that he is back to his defence-shattering best with ball in hand.