Cape Town – Unless coach Allister Coetzee makes some
unexpected tactical adjustments to suit the occasion, Western Province will
almost certainly field the youngest front row in Currie Cup final history
against the Sharks on Saturday.
Think about it ... when last can you recall a final (there
have been 51 of them) of the major domestic competition where one team’s
tighthead prop and hooker will both be 21 years old, and the loosehead 20?
But that will be the case at Mr Price Kings Park (17:00
kickoff) if Province repeat their semi-final trick of fielding all of Steven
Kitshoff, Siyabonga Ntubeni and Frans Malherbe at the coal-face.
Regardless of whether or not Sharks coach John Plumtree
starts with established Springbok Tendai Mtawarira at No 1 in his side (he was
used for impact purposes in their semi against the Blue Bulls, with Dale
Chadwick starting), and also whether crusty Bok Jannie du Plessis is deemed fit
to play after his concussion last weekend, the home team will eclipse the
underdogs for experience in this department.
Even Kyle Cooper, the relative spring-chicken hooker who has
been keeping fringe national squad member Craig Burden out of the starting XV,
is 23 and that puts him at a calendar advantage over all three WP rookies
While there is good reason to crow about the achievement of
the Newlands-based franchise, in being able to pin such collective faith in
callow youth – their promise is hardly in doubt -- it is probably also true to
say that the front row will be an area the Sharks will vigorously target for
supremacy as a result.
Of course the big disadvantage of all of Province’s trio
being so greenhorn is that they are a very long way from finished articles,
both individually and collectively – isn’t it said that many of the best
front-rankers only really peak at their no-frills, netherworld trade when they
are around the 30 mark or even older?
So the blue-and-whites were especially jolted ahead of the
knockout phase of the competition when beefy Bok hooker Tiaan Liebenberg, 30,
was among a handful of seasoned customers to cry off the remainder of the
programme through injury.
He is just the sort of player to have provided essential
balance to the WP front row who did, let’s face it, suffer some renewed trauma
at scrum-time last Saturday against the under-rated Lions front-rank,
spearheaded by captain JC Janse van Rensburg.
Deep down, the WP brains trust will know that another
awkward day, at the very least, is in prospect at this particular set-piece
against the Sharks.
Kitshoff is arguably the Province prop with the greatest
capability to be “destructive” in scrummaging terms when the mood grabs him,
but he has played a murderous amount of rugby in just his second first-class
season and will be close to or already experiencing some measure of fatigue.
Remember that when the June Test window came along, instead
of recharging his batteries out of competition he was gleefully recruited
straight into the SA under-20 picture and played an influential role in the
Baby Boks clinching the IRB Junior World Championship on home soil.
Both Paul Roos product Kitshoff and co-youngster Malherbe
are arguably also hamstrung just a little by the fact that hooker Ntubeni is
far more renowned for his mobility and inspiring work-rate than for what he
offers in kilogram terms to the scrum party.
A bit like they used to say of ever-tenacious Bok and WP
open-sider Corne Krige, “Scarra” perhaps only gets to somewhere around the
three-figure mark on the scales with hidden weights in his underwear?
It is not inconceivable that coach Coetzee, in consultation
no doubt with forwards coach Matt Proudfoot, will deem it wise to infuse the
starting front-row for Saturday’s cauldron with at least one greatly more
There are always the uncomplaining workhorse Brok Harris’s
claims to consider (most likely at his preferred tighthead) ... or also the
ex-Sharks and Bok credentials of journeyman Deon Carstens.
The last-named player can scrum on both sides – his Test
caps came overwhelmingly in the No 3 capacity
– and is 33, which would instantly and reassuringly hike the average age
of the Province front row pretty appreciably.
But the likelier scenario, you would think, is that Coetzee
and his lieutenants will take a deep breath, go with the “settled” but markedly
youthful combo and probably load the bench again with both Harris and Carstens for
second-half relief if or when required.
The one thing the Kitshoff-Ntubeni-Malherbe alliance will
not lack is willingness to get stuck into donkeywork outside of the scrums, even
if things are creaking a tad in that particular regard, and also play their
part in what is becoming a better and better rolling-maul unit ...
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