Cape Town – Composition of the Springbok front row to face Scotland could provide coach Heyneke Meyer with his biggest headache ahead of Wednesday’s team announcement for the Port Elizabeth clash on Saturday.
It is increasingly obvious that none of the Bok “old firm” of Tendai Mtawarira and the Du Plessis brothers, Bismarck and Jannie, are able to produce their best rugby at present, as they have been victims of a frighteningly unrealistic work-load for both the Super Rugby title-chasing Sharks and their national team for the last three months or so.
One thing is certain: if any of the trio were New Zealanders, with that country’s central contracting and far more humane approach to franchise exposure as well, they would not have played nearly the volume of rugby experienced for so many high-pressure weeks on the trot by these men from the very heart of the engine room.
The older Du Plessis, medical doctor Jannie, was quoted as saying after the desperately close-shave second-Test victory over Wales at Nelspruit: “We all (the Bok squad) come out of different campaigns.
“I can only speak from a Sharks point of view: we played eight matches on the trot, including four overseas, and then immediately had four (internationals) scheduled in a row ... and every time the intensity increases.
“So you play 12 matches in a row ... and it gets really difficult.”
The big tighthead was being pretty diplomatic, although he must have been so tempted to use the word “impossible”.
Frankly, it makes sense for Meyer to rest – or at the very least not start – any of the Sharks trio against Scotland, who will be pretty travel-weary themselves after a June programme that has included largely uninspiring victories in the United States (24-6), Canada (19-17) and Argentina (21-19 against an under-strength Pumas XV).
That is a fair amount of globe-trotting ahead of the toughest obstacle for the Six Nations outfit against the IRB second-ranked Boks.
So South Africa should be able to afford themselves the luxury of keeping all of the front-row bankers out of the starting mix on Saturday.
Or can they?
The dilemma Meyer has – and he may be especially twitchy about fielding an all-reserve front three, considering the serious jail-break required to pip the Welsh – is that the Boks’ secondary arsenal at prop doesn’t like hugely convincing right now.
For instance, Coenie Oosthuizen is yet to show genuine signs that he can, indeed, be transformed from thunderous ball-carrying loosehead to the specialist scrummaging demands that come on the other side of the front row.
Then again, it would be grossly unfair to judge the huge Cheetahs prop on Saturday’s tricky 22 minutes off the bench at tighthead ... roughly half that time was spent with the Bok pack reduced to seven men through Flip van der Merwe’s untimely yellow card.
It left the already under-the-cosh forwards with only Victor Matfield, traditionally the more lightweight of the Bok lock pairing, as a second-row specialist at scrum-time, and Wales cashed in.
There is also a case for saying of the 16-cap (though hitherto still only one start) front-ranker: let’s throw him in for a proper examination at No 3 against Scotland.
But if Oosthuizen is to be granted a rare full or near-full game, can the Boks afford to simultaneously blood a raw loosehead?
That would be the case whether they chose either of uncapped Bulls utility prop Marcel van der Merwe or the Cheetahs’ Trevor Nyakane at No 1: the latter at least boasts three prior appearances in green and gold, but all as a sub thus far and his stamina for the “full eighty” is open to some debate.
Under the circumstances, it is a big blow that the Boks had to surrender seasoned Gurthro Steenkamp, who looked good first as a starter then replacement in the Wales mini-series, among the seven players released because of pre-determined deals with their European clubs: he could have been the perfect, suitably street-wise prop partner for someone like Oosthuizen on Saturday.
Remember also that 23-year-old Frans Malherbe, a specialist tighthead who started two Tests on the Boks’ unbeaten end-of-year tour in 2013 and is highly rated by former national coach Nick Mallett, is an increasingly long-term casualty through a concussion problem picked up while on Stormers duty many weeks ago.
Just a little worryingly, concrete information on his status has not been forthcoming from Newlands; an update on camp medical matters is expected next week.
Meyer may decide not to risk fielding two relative novices in the prop positions from the outset on Saturday, and thus decide between just one of Mtawarira or Jannie du Plessis for who is more in need of feet-up time on the day.
Less complex, thank goodness, is the situation at hooker: if Bismarck du Plessis is rested, Adriaan Strauss fits seamlessly into the mix given his relative wealth of Bok experience and capability ...
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