Springboks

Allister’s Dublin poser: Beast or Kitsie?

2017-11-03 12:50
Tendai Mtawarira (Gallo)

Cape Town - So who do you brand the “incumbent”?

That is a dilemma facing Springbok coach Allister Coetzee at loose-head prop as he has to choose between two attractive options to scrum down on that side in the European tour opener against Ireland in Dublin next Saturday.

It is the toughest fixture of the tour on paper, so getting his starting selection right will be a key factor in the Boks’ desperate quest not to kick off the four-match venture on the back foot.

There are thorny issues in several others areas for Coetzee, but at least his head-scratcher over the No 1 jersey is an entirely pleasant one, featuring a very sprightly duo of premier candidates indeed: veteran combatant Tendai Mtawarira and the younger, but booming, Steven Kitshoff.

The argument for fielding 32-year-old Sharks favourite “Beast” is that he was the custodian of the position up to his withdrawal from the last Test match - the narrowly-lost thriller against the All Blacks at Newlands on October 7 - on family-related grounds.

Available again for game one of the Euro tour (it would represent his 96th cap) does he simply return to first-choice status?

After all, Mtawarira has arguably been playing more consistently solidly for the country this year than in several seasons before that, almost always keeping tighthead rivals suitably repelled at the set-piece in 2017 and pulling his weight in general play too.

But here’s the counter-argument: Kitshoff undoubtedly made the most of his overdue, maiden start for the Boks at his beloved Newlands, showing both impressive form and stamina in lasting 78 minutes of the breathless encounter against the world champions.

The flame-haired customer scrummed well, and also operated dynamically as a tackler, mauling presence and ball-carrier - certainly showing that it was cruel he had to wait 18 bench appearances before finally cracking the No 1 shirt.

Truth be told, Kitshoff, 25, was responsible for the most compelling Bok loose-head performance of the season that day against NZ, despite the earlier, yeoman enough efforts of the man up the coast seven years his senior.

In Mtawarira’s favour for the Ireland clash, perhaps, is the very fact that he is such an experienced starter - only nine of his Bok games have been as a “splinters” element.

For his sins, in a sense, Kitshoff has all too often confirmed that he brings genuine, appealing impact when introduced (usually) during the second half of matches, especially with his barrelling charges - using his hefty 120kg frame to the full - in open play.

It could also be argued that Mtawarira, presumably fresh after a decent break since the Wallaby Test in Bloemfontein on September 30, sports infinitely better knowledge of northern hemisphere Test conditions in late autumn/early winter.

Then again, a fast enough retort from the pro-Kitshoff lobby, you suspect, might be that he is hardly a European rookie, having made 34 appearances for French club Bordeaux in a wisdom-building spell on their books between 2015 and early 2017 before his return to the Stormers.

So which way around will Coetzee go with his loose-heads next Saturday?

My gut feeling is that Mtawarira, rightly or wrongly, may get into battle against the Irish first.

But whichever way the selection goes, the Boks seem fairly assured of a fired-up, complacency-free customer at loose-head prop.

He will have to be that.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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