Bok front 5 options narrow
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – South Africa’s bid to break their European tour duck at the fourth attempt, against Italy on Saturday, is being bedevilled by a lethal cocktail of injury, form and threadbare-option concerns.
It will be interesting to see when, exactly, the Test side to play the Six Nations bottom-sawyers in Udine is actually revealed: coach Peter de Villiers and company have all sorts of head-scratching to do in the aftermath of another galling reverse against Saracens at Wembley.
And it is hard to feel hugely sympathetic – in some respects chickens are coming home to roost in the shape of nutty, ill-conceived pre-tour selections, especially in the heart of the battered (both “midweek” and Test-level) scrum.
A variety of naïve, ham-handed picks for a northern hemisphere-specific trek, coupled with a growing list of tour casualties – par for the course at the end of an exhausting year – have conspired to leave a worrying whiff of uncertainty in the air as the Boks gear up for the assault, hazardous in its likely bluntness, of Nick Mallett’s Italian charges.
Several senior, established Test stars are battling to be fit in time, their ranks including Bismarck du Plessis and Schalk Burger, and to compound matters a few credible players who might have provided “refreshment” to the footsore XV this weekend, like Andries Bekker and CJ van der Linde, are fighting niggles themselves post-Sarries.
So how the all-important -- and presently fiercely-scrutinised -- front five, in particular, will look on Saturday is anybody’s guess right now.
Even if he cuts the fitness mustard, is it worth fielding Du Plessis at hooker this weekend? The normally abrasive Sharks man is among several Boks rather obviously labouring after the Lions and Tri-Nations exertions, while the same very much applies to loosehead Beast Mtawarira.
In the latter’s case, might he be a lamb to the spit at the hands of a certain Martin Castrogiovanni, who has already feasted on braaied Springbok and liked it, on the Italian tighthead side?
Alternatively, do you throw Wian du Preez into the cauldron for probably the stiffest examination yet of his Bok front-line credentials?
Either possibility looks just a little grisly at present.
Maybe the answer lies in Heinke van der Merwe, arguably the foremost victim of fruitcake tour strategy in suddenly learning from a cavalier coach De Villiers just before departure that he was earmarked as “tighthead cover” on the trip.
Just the relief of pulling a more rightful No 1 jersey over his head – where he had been making fine strides before his long-term injury -- might inspire him to epic resistance against the mountainous Castrogiovanni.
There have been whispers that the route back to urgent scrumming stability lies in captain John Smit – a blow, maybe, to the exemplary leader’s pride as he fights to bed down in his new role? -- returning to hooker, thus ensuring a front row not exactly shy on kilograms.
But Van der Linde hobbling off after only 11 minutes against Saracens possibly throws a spanner in those works because, outside of Smit, that leaves a barren tour cupboard in specialist No 3s.
Disturbingly, the Du Preez-Adriaan Strauss-Van der Linde front row seemed to provide no new cause for South African scrummaging enthusiasm against Sarries, who basically got both their tries off a back-pedalling opposition set-piece, although there are two key reasons why it is unfair to judge them on that match.
The first is the obvious disruption caused by Van der Linde’s early exit – replacement Van der Merwe, surprise, surprise, looked like a snoek writhing on the N1 at tighthead – and the other that the dirt-trackers fatally fielded two beanstalk, “athletic” locks in Bekker and rookie Alistair Hargreaves: it is hard to believe there was enormous go-forward from the second row.
Individually, both men certainly had decent moments but they were always going to be too “samey” to be effective as a combination, especially in a European environment that always favours at least one door-stop customer at lock and preferably even two.
And now Bekker’s rib problem means the opportunity may no longer be possible to give Victor Matfield a much-needed rest against Italy and recharge his batteries for the climax against Ireland, unbeaten this year.
Pairing Bakkies Botha with similarly “physical” Bulls team-mate Danie Rossouw against Italy would not the worst idea in the world, although the latter, frankly, has been a huge disappointment against both Leicester Tigers, where he lost his composure, and more recently in largely anonymous second-half duty against Saracens.
It never rains but it pours?