Currie Cup

D-Day for raw WP front row

2012-10-23 10:47
Steven Kitshoff (Gallo)
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 anyway.

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 street-wise customer.

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 ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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