Spies needs to keep socks up
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Few need reminding that the Springboks have developed a neat little line in winning World Cups with a lock in the No 8 jersey.
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The first time was when Sharks second-rower Mark Andrews was daringly fielded there by Kitch Christie in the last two games of RWC 1995, and then in the Boks’ follow-up Webb Ellis Cup success in 2007 the versatile - but perhaps still mostly lock-suited, physically - Danie Rossouw started there in Jake White’s brew for all three matches at the knockout stage.
It was his vital, diving tackle on Mark Cueto that denied the England wing a try by a whisker in the tight, tense final.
More recently the 44-cap Pierre Spies has consistently been Peter de Villiers’s first choice in the jersey, including starts in all three RWC 2011 matches thus far.
The muscular Blue Bull has never been associated with second-row play, of course, and there have even been those who maintain he could be cutting it as a powerful wing not dissimilar to certain All Blacks and Pacific Islanders of recent times - his identically-named father was of good provincial standard in that position for Northern Transvaal, after all.
Yet Spies continues to hog a spot in the loose trio, still a mysterious man to fathom because of his bursts of electric, barnstorming running being mixed with periods of anonymity, especially in close matches involving plenty of “trench warfare”.
He’s been respectable for the Boks this season; a bit of a six-out-of-10 sort of customer and seemingly earmarked to keep his job for the duration of the tournament, however long that is for the defending champions.
But could the country still be better served at No 8? I don’t believe I am alone in regularly revisiting that debate.
Coach De Villiers passed up the opportunity to try someone else in the shirt against the rank minnows of Namibia on Thursday, and there may or may not be any special signals in that.
After all, a few stalwarts stayed in their positions, while some others were specifically rested.
Coming up against a side like the Namibians is arguably one of those no-gain situations: play badly as an individual and people will raise eyebrows pretty strongly for your failure to stamp your authority against such limited foes; play well and there’ll doubtless be a bit of “ag, it was only Namibia, man”.
My own belief is that Spies needs to shine in this match to book his onward passage in New Zealand at No 8.
Because just one issue that may come under the microscope shortly, when Victor Matfield is back to full fitness, is what will become of the evergreen Rossouw once the lineout king returns, as expected, to one of the locking berths?
Sabie-born Rossouw seems to absolutely thrive on the tournament stage, and hasn’t played at all like the 33-year-old he is thus far - he’s been possibly the most dynamic and visible Springbok on view at the World Cup, in any position.
Despite playing at No 5 lock, where he formed a fine soften-‘em-up alliance with Bakkies Botha in the first half, his ball-carries against Fiji were brilliant and loose forward-like, from start to finish.
Plus we all know that he isn’t afraid to get stuck in at coalface chores which the cameras may miss: Rossouw is a dream “team man” in that respect.
De Villiers has very recently reminded of the impact riches he can offer off his bench, with the adaptable Rossouw presumably intended as a key feature in that regard once Matfield is restored to the tight five.
But I’d like to offer up a counter-theory: what price actually starting with Rossouw at No 8, with Spies in turn being a “supersub”, offering strong second-half leg drive once the game has been chiselled open or is seemingly on the brink of doing so?
It is true that Spies offers greater mobility and that sometimes, especially when he is operating among the back three in the pack, Rossouw’s handling can let him down a tad, but I retain a suspicion that the latter will offer the Boks noticeably greater work-rate possibilities than Spies in the initial part of matches.
Besides, if you have the demonically active Heinrich Brüssow and Schalk Burger among your loose trio, you are not going to be too wanting for speed to the breakdown, regardless of what type of player is wearing No 8.
The Boks are always most comfortable fielding a collectively brawny eight, and I have a nagging belief that with Rossouw packing down immediately behind Messrs Botha and Matfield at scrum-time and being involved in other facets of the grapple and grunt element while a foothold is carved out, South Africa going into some sort of reverse mode is highly unlikely.
Even if there are one or two other Springbok players of whom you could suggest the same thing, in a nutshell, I think Rossouw is looking too good to be wasted as a substitute.
Pierre Spies, stay on your toes … oh, and don’t forget that funny little aspect of World Cup No 8 history I mentioned.
The Boks' clash against Namibia on Thursday kicks-off at 10h00 (South African time).
15 Pat Lambie, 14 Gio Aplon, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Willem Alberts, 5 Danie Rossouw, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 CJ van der Linde, 2 John Smit (captain), Gurthro Steenkamp.
Substitutes: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Tendai Mtawarira, 18 Francois Louw, 19 Heinrich Brüssow, 20 Fourie du Preez, 21 Ruan Pienaar, 22 Juan de Jongh.
15 Chrysander Botha, 14 Danie Dames, 13 Danie van Wyk, 12 Piet van Zyl, 11 Heine Bock, 10 Theuns Kotze, 9 Eugene Jantjies, 8 Jacques Nieuwenhuis, 7 Jacques Burger (c), 6 Tinus du Plessis, 5 Nico Esterhuyse, 4 Heinz Koll, 3 Marius Visser, 2 Bertus O'Callaghan, 1 Johnnie Redelinghuys
Substitutes: 16 Hugo Horn, 17 Jané du Toit, 18 Pieter Jan van Lill, 19 Rohan Kitshoff, 20 Ryan de la Harpe, 21 Darryl de la Harpe, 22 Conrad Marais
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