Du Toit v De Jager: Bok duel intensifies

2016-05-04 11:26
Pieter-Steph du Toit (Getty)

Cape Town – Allister Coetzee will have plenty of head-scratchers when he pulls together his keenly-awaited first Springbok team to tackle Ireland next month … lock won’t be one of them.

Or put it this way: it will offer up at least one poser, at No 5, of the entirely pleasant, embarrassment-of-riches type.

The second row is highly likely to be the one area where continuity will reign supreme, and that is even despite the retirement from internationals of the most capped Bok of all time, Victor Matfield.

Although injured a fair bit of the time, the great lineout master was among the quartet of specialist second-rowers employed by previous coach Heyneke Meyer at the 2015 World Cup.

But the other three, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit -- all with best years quite feasibly still ahead of them -- are so firmly in the mix for 2016 plans that you can pretty much pencil them in already for roles among the match-day 23 for the first Test against the Irish at Newlands on June 11.

It seems increasingly safe to assume that 24-year-old juggernaut Etzebeth will be able to resume his highly-valued duty as the No 4 enforcer where few, if any, are superior in global rugby right now: after several weeks off nursing a calf injury, he may be included in the Stormers party to travel to Singapore to tackle the Sunwolves on Saturday week.

Even he features minimally or not at all there, Etzebeth still has derbies against the Bulls and Cheetahs to sharpen up for the June Tests.

He is the Bok first choice at four by some distance, as things stand, and of course hugely well-known to new SA mastermind Coetzee, who confidently introduced him to Super Rugby as a rookie at the Capetonian franchise back in 2012.

Things are more competitive – and then some – when it comes to the pick for the No 5 shirt, however.

Cheetahs iron man De Jager formed a critically-acclaimed alliance with Etzebeth at times (while the ageing Matfield nursed a nagging hamstring problem) during RWC 2015, where the Boks eventually earned bronze status, wowing scribes and spectators alike with their combination of grunt, high work-rate and athleticism.

People who aren’t exposed to regular Super Rugby viewing might be inclined to believe it only obvious that the Etzebeth-De Jager combination carry on in June where they left off in green and gold a few months ago.

Yet that, of course, would be overlooking the seriously mounting claims of Etzebeth’s Stormers lock-mate Du Toit for starts against Ireland.

Just on Super Rugby form this season, the 23-year-old Swartlander, who has effectively returned to his roots by signing for the franchise, arguably edges out De Jager.

The latter has put in some honest enough shifts for the Cheetahs, but is possibly also dragged down a little at times by the collective struggler of the Bloemfontein outfit, now sporting only two wins from nine starts.

For pure dynamism and all-round efficiency, Du Toit, the less experienced Bok – eight caps, but only one start – has been sensational for the Stormers, culminating in a colossal display even in defeat against the Waratahs on Saturday, when the home pack would have felt entitled to believe they’d done enough to tee up a win that was snatched away at the death.

The blond unit has stepped up superbly as the “senior” lock in the weeks when they have been minus Etzebeth, and is certainly among the tight forwards at Newlands most worthy of the feet-up time this week as the Stormers experience a bye.

Pleasingly, both De Jager and Du Toit are also appealing bench second-rowers for international purposes, as they can confidently cover both the four and five roles, so it is very hard to believe Coetzee will go anywhere beyond Etzebeth, De Jager and Du Toit for his maiden squad of 23, regardless of which of the last-named two begins the first Test in the traditional lineout-manager slot.

Let’s not forget that the country is blessed with a booming array of other young second-rowers pushing their way to the fore; just one of late is the Bulls beanpole RG Snyman, 21, who was imperious in the roasting of the Force in Perth.

But if the Bok coach is fretting over precisely which of De Jager and Du Toit to station at No 5 in early June, it is worth remembering that there will be, fitness permitting, an engrossing head-to-head encounter at Newlands on May 28 when the Stormers entertain the Cheetahs – conveniently a fortnight before the Test opener against Ireland.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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