Bloemfontein – The Springboks, desperate for a win over the Wallabies in Bloemfontein on Saturday, will take huge comfort in the fact that they have scrumhalf Ross Cronjeback in action.
The 28-year-old is still green when it comes to Test rugby – he has just four international caps to his name having suffered two injuries and an illness in 2017 – but he offers a stability that the Boks have lacked when he has been on the sidelines.
Francois Hougaard had been given the scrumhalf responsibilities in Cronje’s absence, but coach Allister Coetzee eventually lost patience with the former Bulls man after another disappointing showing against the All Blacks two weekends ago.
With Hougaard dumped, Rudy Paige is set to stay on as second-choice as Cronje returns.
It is a major positive for Coetzee and the Boks ahead of a match that they simply must win. Any hopes of a first Rugby Championship title since 2009 are well and truly extinguished, but the Boks must make a statement this weekend to suggest that they have recovered from that 57-0 hammering in Albany.
What Coetzee has in Cronje is a scrumhalf who does the basics well and, most importantly, gets quality ball away quickly.
It was here, in particular, where Hougaard struggled as his two steps before passing gave the All Black defensive line time to squeeze the Bok attack.
Elton Jantjies is a flyhalf that thrives when has that extra split-second, and Cronje gives him that.
The Boks have struggled at scrumhalf ever since the end of the 2015 World Cup when Fourie du Preez bowed out of the game, but in Cronje they seemingly have a player who can take them to 2019.
It is a large responsibility for a man who has represented his country just four times, but Cronje appears level-headed enough to take it in his stride.
“I don’t feel that there’s pressure on me,” Cronje told media in Bloemfontein on Tuesday.
“This isn’t an individual sport … it’s a team sport and I believe the guys around me will make my life a lot easier.
“I’m just excited to be back in the mix.”
Cronje played in the 23-23 draw against the Wallabies in Perth, and he is expecting another tough assignment in Bloemfontein.
“They are a quality side and since the start of the Championship they’ve just got better and better,” he said of the Australians.
“But we do have the talent and the drive and we’re excited about the challenges that lie ahead.”
The defeat against the All Blacks, Cronje said, was serving as a massive motivating factor for the group this week.
“It makes me a lot more hungry to go and show South Africa what we can do as a team. We were hurting, but that’s in the past now,” he said.
“The whole of South Africa expects us to win and that’s what we want to go out there and do.”
With an emphasis on ball-in-hand and attack seemingly the key focus for the Boks this weekend, Cronje’s service will be key.
It is an aspect that he has been working on perfecting for years.
“You’ve got to practice it every single day. If you’re not working on something you’re not going to get better,” he said.
“I’ve focused quite hard on that … if the team is getting quick ball from the base it gives your backline time to make the right decision.”
Kick-off on Saturday is at 17:00.