Castro's salvo to Test Boks
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Nought from one: it’s never a palatable way to start an international mini-tour at the back end of your exhausting domestic season, is it?
Novice-laden dirt-trackers as the victims or not, South Africa will be widely perceived to be on the European back foot already after their gruesome-to-watch bullying, and ultimately humbling, at the hands of “clubbies” Leicester Tigers.
Forget for a minute that the overwhelming nucleus of the Springbok senior side haven’t even stepped on a north-bound plane yet and that the main goal of winning the three Tests remains unruffled.
Because just as the naïve, wobbly-legged rookies, bruised almost beyond belief in the English Midlands, hardly constitute the Springboks’ front-line armoury, you could similarly argue that the weakened yet iron-willed Tigers outfit aren’t as accomplished as the French national side possibly licking their lips now for Toulouse on Friday night.
The Boks have a pretty poor modern record in France anyway, and you suspect that events in Leicester will have creased the brows of the broader, blue-chip South African camp who, deep down, would rather be tossing Frisbees around on our beaches than heading into the Euro gloom as well after a glittering but gruelling year.
Still, this five-match tour, as a collective entity, can hardly be branded a disaster yet – if one good thing did emerge from the second-tier crew, playing together for the first time, it was that pride in the green-and-gold jersey has not gone absent despite the indignity of the 22-17 Welford Road reverse.
Considering the way they were gored, sliced and diced up front, it remains a fact that, via a gutsy, second-wind blitzkrieg in the final 10 minutes or so, the Bok novices came within a whisker of snatching the spoils, however outrageously fortuitous or unjust that would have been.
And maybe John Smit and his proven-pedigreed fellow seniors, getting ready to zip their own travel bags, will be grateful to Leicester Tigers for knocking any hints of complacency or insufficient urgency out of them as they embark.
Certainly the colossal Martin Castrogiovanni and company in the Tigers pack served up a timely, sobering reminder of the culture of scrummaging and tight-loose unity and cohesion that characterises rugby in the northern hemisphere, despite its various shortcomings in other departments.
Let’s not forget that, even as the French pack looms threateningly on the immediate horizon, the top-flight Boks will almost certainly encounter the 122kg “Castro” themselves just a week on from the Toulouse clash as Italy try their own luck against the world champions.
Argentinean-born, which probably goes a long way to explaining his pushing prowess and inferno in the belly, the bearded, unruly-haired tighthead was my man-of-the-match by several furlongs.
The 59-cap international looks like a throwback to days when humans hunted for their supper with spears, and he certainly skewered his immediate opponent Gurthro Steenkamp most emphatically, didn’t he?
Mind you, Steenkamp, whom I have suspected for some time has gone backwards as a scrummaging factor if not as much in general play, must not stand humiliated alone: his front-row colleagues Jannie du Plessis and both hookers employed on the night were shown up too, and the “upright” propensity of the entire Bok eight in the set scrums was as fatal as leaving your natty cellphone on a Hillbrow pavement for 10 minutes and hoping to see it again.
Speaking of the hookers, we are entitled to ask particularly searching questions about the pre-match state of fitness of Chiliboy Ralepelle, captain for the hardly unimportant tour opener.
Just a week earlier, we all read the stories of his heartbreaking failure to fight off his injury bogey in time for a role of some sort in the Currie Cup final: by what miracle was he suddenly deemed hale and hearty to assume national leadership just a few days on, clearly chronically short of 80-minute lungs anyway?
I feel for the jinxed customer, in his quest to convince all punters that he’s the real deal, yet he lasted a mere 19 minutes -- obviously disrupting Bok plans in several respects -- and if he was tossed to the wolves prematurely it may have cost him further, demoralising time on the sidelines.
Be that as it may, we now have reason to fear that if the Springbok first team struggles at the set scrum early on this tour, secondary options to remedy it hardly bellow deafeningly from the rooftops.
Certainly the early portents suggest that selection policy for the mission, in terms of front row reserve stock, is going to be proved foolhardy in the extreme if the over-played, probably knackered Tendai Mtawarira-Bismarck du Plessis-Smit combination creaks noticeably all over again.
At least Mtawarira has reportedly been cleared to travel after one of those uniquely South African little political intrigues, with Sports Ministry officials querying his eligibility for the country.
It shows what bright sparks some people are, don’t you think, if suddenly the Zimbabwean-born loosehead’s Bok credentials are placed under scrutiny after he debuted all of 17 months ago and has amassed nearly 20 caps before a dissenting finger is bizarrely raised?
Indeed, one can only hope that some manner of xenophobic spitefulness didn’t lie at the root of any quest to sideline the genial, Durban-based near-cult figure.
After all, the nation would seriously welcome the “Beast” doing a Vickery II somewhere along the line if the Bok Test scrum is to avoid the kind of choppy waters experienced against the Tigers.
But if few will envy Mtawarira in his likely task against the mountainous Castrogiovanni, in particular, in a fortnight, maybe this trio of end-of-year Tests will also serve as skipper Smit’s most acid examination yet in the No 3 jersey.
Tighten your seatbelts; things could get a tad rough …