Rugby Championship

Super-subs keeping Boks on their toes

2017-08-21 14:47
Pieter-Steph du Toit (Gallo)

Cape Town – The forcefulness of South Africa’s substitutes, especially in the pack, is ensuring that a “passenger” phenomenon amidst the starting XV is being notably avoided in 2017 Test matches thus far.

Allister Coetzee’s rejuvenated charges, who are running a healthy four from four in results terms for the year following the encouraging 37-15 Castle Rugby Championship-opening win against Argentina in Port Elizabeth on Saturday, have demonstrated a healthy squad ethic throughout the turnaround crusade.

It is far from a complete business, of course: the most rigorous judgement of their progress comes now, with the much trickier, immediate return clash with the Pumas in Salta on Saturday and then onward to the meetings with more long-standing foes Australia and New Zealand.

But as much as a widespread team harmony and unity of purpose have been extremely noticeable features of late, the first XV is also feeling constructive heat in many instances from the impact-geared ranks on the bench.

Certainly as the Boks gradually turned the screws at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, they lost nothing – and even went up a menacing gear at times - when coach Coetzee made judicious, freshening alterations during the second half.

Although absolutely nobody off the “splinters” let the cause down, there were especially incisive, lusty contributions from three forwards: big flanker Jean-Luc du Preez and lock Pieter-Steph du Toit (on for Jaco Kriel and Franco Mostert respectively at the hour mark), as well as loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff, who had replaced veteran Tendai Mtawarira some four minutes earlier.

Certainly Sharks favourite Du Preez, who earned his fifth cap (fourth as a reserve) hit the ground running, to the extent that his 20-minute cameo makes him at least worthy of debate for a start in Salta where his extra strength and height could come in useful in a likely “war” – the Argentineans will be on a spirited redemption crusade, you can almost be sure, before their noisy, animated faithful.

He almost immediately bumped a defender unceremoniously backwards with his first significant carry, and the 22-year-old continued to impose his 113kg frame vigorously on proceedings.

Du Preez is very different in playing style to Lions tearaway Kriel, who is the current occupant of the No 7 jersey, even though it was clear on Saturday that all the starting loose forwards had certain “libero” or flexible mandates to their duties.

Traditionally, Kriel fits the bill far better as an open-sider - although that is vice-captain Siya Kolisi’s present major capacity – and the Lions whippet played (very effectively, it is true) more like one.

There is a solid case for Coetzee sticking to his starting formula in Salta – at least for the moment, the other experiment of Uzair Cassiem in the eighth-man jersey looks to have merit – although Du Preez ahead of Kriel, with the faster, smaller man instead becoming the impact factor, would probably not be the silliest of tweaks if it were to happen.

For good periods of the first half last Saturday, the Boks were a bit lateral in their attack and Du Preez is the sort of ball-carrying beast capable of punching holes and committing defenders, thus ensuring a better prospect of overlaps and more stretched resources for the opposition out wide.

Then there is the Kitshoff issue: the flame-haired loosehead prop, still only 25 despite his seven years or more of first-class rugby, patiently awaits his first starts for his country after as many as 14 appearances now as a substitute. He keeps making a sound impression, when injected, in all areas of major responsibility.

But based on Saturday in PE, there is also the heartening fact that Mtawarira played one of his best Test matches in recent years as the start-out No 1, including giving Pumas tighthead Enrique Pieretto a torrid time at the set-piece.

Fifteenth time lucky for Kitshoff? He may have to wait a bit longer yet to run out at the outset, although the seasoned “Beast” will also know he cannot rest on his laurels, to the benefit of the overall cause.

The way Stormers-based Du Toit got stuck in during his own fourth-quarter exposure also sent out a major statement that he is back in pursuit of the No 5 shirt he surrendered to Lions rival Mostert earlier this season … primarily based, and undoubtedly on merit at the time, on Mostert’s superior consistency at Super Rugby level.

Competition? We all know the cliché about it being “healthy” in sports teams.

The Boks are taking the theory to appealing new levels.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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Saturday, 30 September 2017
South Africa v Australia, Bloemfontein 17:05
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