Rugby Championship

Boks have tour edge at hooker

2014-08-28 13:00
Bismarck du Plessis (Gallo)

Cape Town – The Springboks may be feeling a slightly beleaguered bunch after their lucky escape in Argentina, but they look much better served than both next opponents for the moment in at least one key department for their tough, two-match Australasian challenge shortly.

The Boks play Australia in Perth next Saturday and then New Zealand in Wellington a week later as they attempt to hold onto their lead on the Castle Rugby Championship table.

Coincidentally, both off their traditionally biggest southern hemisphere rivals are labouring, or at the very least unsettled at present, in the hooker department ... one area where Heyneke Meyer’s charges have no issues at all with the almost parallel quality and experience offered by Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss.

The Wallabies already have first-choice, hard-nosed No 2 Stephen Moore on the long-term crocked list through a knee reconstruction, whilst newcomer Nathan Charles from the Western Force – who earned just his second start in the 51-20 reverse to the All Blacks at Eden Park last Saturday – has succumbed to a season-ending pectoral tear.

In a hint of desperation, the Aussies have fast-tracked the chunky Tatafu Polota-Nau back into their squad after a knee injury, although coach Ewen McKenzie has admitted “next week’s a stretch” for the Waratahs stalwart and he is much likelier to play a role a week later against the Pumas.

That probably leaves the Wallabies with James Hanson of the Reds, twice an international substitute, forced into a starting debut against the Boks.

But the defending champion All Blacks also have certain upheaval in the middle of their front row --and of course lineout plans – with the revelation that the Hurricanes’ Dane Coles, the current first choice, will probably miss the Bok fixture as his partner is due to give birth to their first child around the time of the September 13 encounter.

Some consolation is that the gnarly Keven Mealamu, a long-time Blues legend and holder of 115 All Black caps, is favourite to wear the No 2 shirt and his competitive juices are often stirred more significantly than for most other foes by the challenge of the “green and gold”.

All of 11 years ago, for instance, he was the standout performer in the 2003 World Cup quarter-final in Melbourne when he also notched a try in New Zealand’s 29-9 disposal of South Africa: John Smit and Danie Coetzee (the reserve) were the Bok hookers that day and both have since retired from all forms of the game.

But the 35-year-old is arguably well past his best, which goes a long way to explaining why this year he has been employed exclusively as an impact substitute in all five Tests played by the All Blacks thus far.

There is also talk that New Zealand will ask uncapped 22-year-old Nathan Harris, of Bay of Plenty, to be the back-up hooker for the Bok clash – he has just had his maiden season of Super Rugby for the Chiefs.

In stark contrast, the Boks (unless there is a sudden, unwelcome mishap to either) will be able to put out their old firm in the No 2 slot of Sharks favourite Du Plessis and Bulls-bound former Cheetahs captain Strauss.

Du Plessis may have been notably short of his devastating, muscular best in both matches against the Pumas, but it is difficult to imagine he has not been bemused -- and perhaps even stung -- by the inexplicable amount of abuse that he and various other senior, proven Bok figures have copped since those two fixtures.

He also has a bit of a bone to pick with the All Blacks – and make no mistake, he is highly revered for his rugby skills in New Zealand – after his unjust red-carding by referee Romain Poite in last year’s away meeting.

As for Strauss, he only reminded of his own attributes in the Salta rollercoaster ride last Saturday, being one of several subs who entered the fray when the Boks were really under the cosh and helped sparked the late, decisive turnaround.

So whether he gets a start or not on the two-leg mission in Australasia, expect Strauss to see a fair amount of game-time nevertheless.

With their 98 Bok appearances between them, Du Plessis and Strauss offer oceans of stability to the South African cause at hooker.

The waters are choppier there for both the Wallabies and All Blacks right now, and it is one facet where South Africa should do their very utmost to cash in ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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