Rugby Championship

Boks can rule skies in Salta

2014-08-20 22:47
Juan Smith (Getty Images)

Cape Town – South Africa may still be minus the ruler of the lineout world, Victor Matfield, but they will nevertheless put out some unusually tall timber against Argentina in Salta on Saturday (21:40 SA time).

Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer’s three changes to his starting line-up for the Castle Rugby Championship second round fixture, revealed on Wednesday, include the return of Eben Etzebeth as No 4 lock and – after an infinitely lengthier absence – Juan Smith in the blindside flank role.

The pairing of Etzebeth (2.03m) with Lood de Jager (2.06m) in the second row certainly gives hooker Bismarck du Plessis some big primary targets to aim for at lineouts.

If anything, too, his longer throw-ins will now be to a more formidable selection of loose forwards, given that in Duane Vermeulen and the 1.97m Smith the Boks also boast two of the finest exponents of the trade planet-wide -- and even their open-sider Francois Louw is no slouch at plucking the ball from the air.

Maybe a particularly concerted Bok lineout assault is intended as a counter to a threatened, repeat bout of Pumas scrum mastery after the angst they caused in that area at Loftus, although Meyer did remind in his media release with the team announcement that “our lineouts are an important attacking platform ... we need to improve this week”.

You suspect that should happen, not only due to the greater collective height and variety of Bok jumpers this time around, but because conditions look like being light years apart (“sunny and mild” is on the cards) from those experienced in Pretoria, and the ball no longer a lottery-causing cake of soap.

The return of the 33-year-old Smith is easily the most gladdening feature of the latest selection to those who admire not only his wide-ranging rugby qualities but the sheer depth of quiet spirit that has got him to Saturday’s line-up for the anthems and a personal 70th cap.

Subsequently ravaged by Achilles woes, which would have permanently sidelined many lesser characters by now, the unassuming Free Stater was still a twenty-something when he last started for his country against England at Twickenham in November 2010.

His loose forward allies in that 21-11 win were Deon Stegmann and Pierre Spies of the Bulls, both of whom are now some way off the Test radar even if the latter is still in slow recovery from a long-term injury.

But Smith has come roaring back for Toulon in all forms of European rugby, and if at least partly to remind that class is permanent, the Boks may be onto a very good thing with his involvement on Saturday against a home side whose fire may need to be doused as early as possible.

Expect him to get stuck in with relish on that score, given that there must be a good likelihood he will only be asked to operate for 50-60 minutes as he is a little short of game time.

The benching of loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira, after just one start since his recovery from injury, for veteran Gurthro Steenkamp may be interpreted as a step by Meyer to indicate broader dissatisfaction with the old-firm front row from the Sharks, who have arguably been in a little too much of a comfort zone in recent times.

There is a case for saying that perhaps a jaded Jannie du Plessis making way for Frans Malherbe might have been a better call if a minor reshuffle was going to occur, but the latter may see generous service in the second half anyway.

Wholesale retention of the backline that was involved in the dour 13-6 arm-wrestle last weekend seems a commendable, stability-friendly decision by the coach, potentially allowing the raw likes of flyhalf Handré Pollard and outside centre Damian de Allende – both imperfect at Loftus – the chance to thrive in more desirable dry-weather circumstances.

If the going gets nail-biting once more, the experienced Morné Steyn could again provide useful calming input in the closing stages if necessary.

Bear in mind that in the absence of a specialist centre on a remodelled bench, Pollard offers decent emergency possibilities in the No 12 channel, to which he is no stranger.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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