Bok tight 5: murky future
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Brute strength, competitiveness and “mongrel” among the tight five has long been a central pillar of South Africa’s status as a world rugby superpower.
And, especially with their peerless locks Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha intending to still be around for another World Cup crack in 2011, there ought to be no violent slip in standards up to and including the New Zealand-staged extravaganza.
Delicate management of these veterans will be important over the next two years, and captain John Smit getting better with increased exposure to his taxing new role as tighthead prop will also be a key wish within the camp in the lead-up to the Springboks’ title defence.
It is probably fair to say that Smit is not yet clear of the woods in convincing all scrummaging observers that he cuts the right-shoulder mustard: the imminent trio of European Tests will provide several crucial further clues.
The inspiring Bok leader looked as though he was beginning to dispense the correct medicine at scrum-time against Tony Woodcock and company in the fitting Tri-Nations climax at Hamilton several weeks ago, but then he and his international front-row colleagues Beast Mtawarira and Bismarck du Plessis had some disconcertingly traumatic moments in the boiler room during the Absa Currie Cup run-in.
That said, it has been a near-unprecedented season in workload terms for the leading Boks, and it may be correct to assume that physical and mental tiredness has taken at least a partial grip among core members of the pack – it may even be apparent anew against France, Italy and Ireland during November, for what I feel is largely a “lose-lose”, banana-peel expedition in many respects.
Whatever happens in the northern hemisphere, however, South Africa’s best tight forwards ought to re-assemble with their Super 14 franchises reasonably revitalised in the new year.
The cream of them have no special reason to fear any global comers, when you think back on some magical – albeit notably inconsistent – 2009 scrumming moments, in particular, against the British and Irish Lions and then New Zealand during the Tri-Nations. (With the destructive, squat Benn Robinson to the fore, the Wallabies provided pockets of serious angst for the Boks in this area.)
It is post-2011, succession issues in the Springbok engine room that worry me rather more … a view only enhanced in my mind by what I feel have been some illogical and uninspired “back-up” selections for the European visit.
The 37-strong party picked for the five, varied tour matches answers, at least on early paper, precious few questions in terms of unearthing any young No 3 “anchors” of note or a next-generation, Botha-type enforcer in the second row.
Any stubbly forward guru will remind you that the right side of the scrum, after all, with a key emphasis on the tighthead and the brawny right-hand lock immediately behind him, is vital in terms of gaining a precious foothold.
And your “barn door” lock is also a valuable component in hitting the rucks powerfully - a la Bakkies again - and generally getting in opposition faces in the netherworld.
A glance at the Bok tour party suggests there is no special fresh promise on the horizon in either department.
Beefy, ever-reliable Danie Rossouw will comfortingly be the “balancer” against Leicester Tigers on Friday for the more Matfield-like Andries Bekker in the second row, although, a year older than Botha at 31, he is hardly a long-term Bok prospect.
The only other specialist lock in the group, controversially, is Alistair Hargreaves, who seemingly fits far more closely into the Bekker/Matfield category: the Sharks rookie has had very little game-time this season, mostly because of injury, although at 23 he can at least be considered to “have a future”.
But he is a 2.01m stringbean, listed in this year’s Super 14 media guide as tipping the scales at a less-than-gargantuan 103kg.
Did it really make sense to take another cruiserweight “athlete” on tour - especially to the heavy fields of Europe - when Bekker, clearly, is earmarked for the looser, lineout-conscious Matfield role down the line?
I thought Bekker went a long way, in the Currie Cup semi-final, to quelling fears that he may just be too much of a “gallop about the park” customer, by mixing his game commendably against the physical Bulls pack.
But it is still vital that a player like him is partnered by a robust, no-frills, strong-shoving lock to make any alliance actually work.
Made little sense
Granted, from a Bok selection point of view there aren’t too many quality, youngish ones of that vein around, although giving Hargreaves, a former SA Under-19 captain, the nod over tough Sharks “front lock” colleague Steven Sykes made little sense to yours truly and many others.
The latter, after all, was a member of the Emerging Bok side which heroically held the touring Lions to a 13-13 draw at Newlands and he is only 25 himself: whatever happened to natural progression?
Speaking of which, the tighthead prop that raining, hailing night in mid-winter was the Bulls’ Werner Kruger, and he has slipped down the pecking order after not being wholly convincing in the Currie Cup or even prior to that in the Super 14 … an ordinary “junior Bok” selection, thus, at the time?
The immediate tighthead back-up to skipper Smit in Europe will be Jannie du Plessis, who has not yet won me over, either. (When last did you see him give any loosehead opponent a truly uncomfortable workout?)
Then again, he is possibly hampered by the difficult dynamic of sharing a franchise with Smit, meaning that, through “rotation”, neither truly gets a solid run in the team.
Worse, though, Bok coach Peter de Villiers tossed out a colourful pre-tour curveball by revealing that Heinke van der Merwe, the extremely promising Lions specialist No 1, will provide tour cover on the other side of the scrum!
In blasé fashion, he said he felt Van der Merwe had “the strength” to make the conversion: a bit like saying that because Jimi Hendrix was such a great guitarist he ought to be have been converted immediately into a drummer.
For crying out loud, why mess with a good thing? Or, if you do wish to see Van der Merwe – chronically game-stale at present after long-term injury, too – tried out at tighthead, why not attempt to persuade his franchise to dabble occasionally with the idea first?
This tour represented a wonderful opportunity to reward Cheetahs tighthead find WP Nel for an inspiring Currie Cup, and give him a trial run -- worth its weight in “experience” gold -- against some hardened, cynical European looseheads. Not cracking the group of 37? Poor stuff, period.
And the more I think about the decision to take along not one, but two Bulls “bench” hookers, the more I think it amounts to a fat slap in the face for the yeoman domestic endeavours of Tiaan Liebenberg and Adriaan Strauss, both of whose bullocking, fronting-up styles of play are nicely suited to European conditions.
So there are two reasons I am anxious about national tight-five prospects post-2011: a shortage of present, obvious resources in one or two of the positions, but compounded by naïve, muddled succession planning …