Brenden Nel - SuperSport
Johannesburg - The Springboks will head off to New Zealand next week knowing full well that at some stage they have to deal with the elephant in the room.
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That elephant - the one they’re all ignoring of course - is the simmering issue of just who will start at hooker for the defending champions in the World Cup.
Bismarck du Plessis’s performance on the weekend underlined the fact that the gulf between him and any other hooker in this country is as huge as a country mile. Not only is he the classic loose forward at the moment, but whenever he took the ball up on Saturday he was stopped by two or three All Black players.
Du Plessis also fulfils the role of another fetcher, and on Saturday more than once pilfered ball from the All Blacks, underlining just how important he is to the Springbok cause at the moment.
Just how much an issue it is at the moment, and how sensitive it can become to the Springbok cause was seen on Saturday when after a magnificent hour, Du Plessis was yanked off the park, clearly not happy with proceedings.
Nor should he have been. There are few coaches that would have taken off a player in such form, few coaches who would have even contemplated the move.
But it seemed that it was a predestined move, one which had been discussed earlier in the week and which was kept to by the coaching staff.
The problem is, with a World Cup tournament that is often won or lost on the slimmest margins, the hooker situation has the potential to blow up in the management’s faces if it is not handled right.
Du Plessis laughed it off after the game, admitting he wasn’t happy at coming off.
“I was enjoying myself out there, and any player who is playing well wants to stay on the field,” he smiled.
His face may have hid a lot more than he was prepared to say, and it again underlined the biggest problem. Do the Boks continue with a captain who is clearly not the best in his position, or rather play a player most people would rate as the best in the world?
All this is a bit unfair to Smit in a way. He is a fabulous captain, one of the best in rugby history. He is well-respected and a great ambassador for the country. And normally, in any other situation, he would easily walk into a national team.
But the stark reality is that Smit is not at his best form as a player. He was moved around a front row at the Sharks and attempts by both his province and the national team to make him a prop looked woefully exposed at times.
Without even looking at the scrum debacle of Durban, Smit had an average game. He made seven tackles and missed three. He could make it over the gain line only 40 percent of his ball carries, and gained a total of 17 metres. While Du Plessis didn’t have to make many tackles in his short stay at the end of the game, he did make 34 metres in his six runs, which certainly made an impression.
Now take Port Elizabeth, where Bismarck put in seven tackles, missed none and made 31 metres in his eight runs, many of which created momentum for the Boks to go forward. Smit’s 20 minutes see stats of 4 tackles made, two missed, and just one metre gained. The difference is stark.
Even if the stats don’t tell the full story, those calling for Smit to be left at home are missing the point. He is an integral part of the Bok tapestry and to go without him would be suicide.
However, how the Boks decide to manage the system, which is becoming more and more of an issue with every Test, could well determine their World Cup success.
And until they acknowledge and deal with the elephant in the room, they will face a growing number of questions that could distract them from their World Cup goal.