Cape Town – Flying in the face of a previously swelling lobby of doubters, South Africa’s seasoned first-choice prop firm of Tendai Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis suddenly seem to have dug in for a fresh lease on life.
Tighthead stalwart Du Plessis, in particular, had been under a public and punditry cloud for some time before Saturday’s Rugby Championship opener against Australia in Brisbane, but undeniably produced the goods both at scrum time and with a welcome, industrious approach once more in general play.
The “Beast” was similarly much closer to his once famed A-game in his own stint on the park, and the second-half substitution of both front-rankers (also that of resurgent hooker Bismarck du Plessis) has been subsequently listed by several observers as a key reason the Boks slid to a late 24-20 defeat after very generous spells of dominance at Suncorp Stadium.
Sometimes it can be grossly unfair to target individuals for culpability when wholesale changes are made during the game to a front row and tight five in general – remember that Bok continuity was already affected by the rare, early injury to No 5 lock and captain Victor Matfield, a staple SA pack figure if ever there was one.
At the same time, though, it is difficult not to suspect that the two reserve props employed against the Wallabies, Heinke van der Merwe and Frans Malherbe, came up a bit short in the quest to advance their personal credentials at a wonderfully opportune time for them.
It was beyond argument that the once forward-moving Bok eight lost its initiative in the scrums once the entire front row had been swapped and was even forced onto the back foot in the all-important closing stages when the Wallabies seized such a decisive grip in both territorial and possession terms.
In Malherbe’s defence, he did provide one or two assertive right shoulders, especially in a shorter period in the first half when he deputised for Du Plessis whilst the starting No 3 retreated for a concussion examination after a knock.
So maybe the Stade Francais-based Van der Merwe is most at risk of losing his place on the “splinters” for the clash with the world champion All Blacks in Johannesburg this Saturday, not helped by conceding an influential penalty when the Boks were under that very late cosh in Brisbane.
It is not inconceivable that coach Heyneke Meyer (he names his match-day mix on Wednesday) will revert to both substitute props he chose for the prior World XV game at Newlands, Trevor Nyakane and Vincent Koch, to give them a further chance to make advances in the pecking order instead.
There is little to separate Koch and Malherbe at tighthead under current circumstances, something demonstrated when they were allies during the conference-winning Stormers’ Super Rugby season and tended to be neck-and-neck in performance terms in an impressive scrummaging unit season-long.
The 26-year-old Nyakane, meanwhile, is developing something of a “supersub” reputation at Test level, where his 13 caps thus far have featured 12 appearances off the bench – there’s been just one start for the chunky customer, against Italy at Padova last year.
But at least he keeps advancing gradually in top-flight experience terms, and hopefully has been re-identified as a more feasible loosehead prospect for the Boks, after some game-time on the other side of the boiler room for the Bulls in Super Rugby 2015.
He just looks more comfortable at loosehead, and this year has upped his ability outside of the set-piece to effect timely turnovers.
It is a shame that Steven Kitshoff, perhaps the most explosive No 1 competition-wide in Super Rugby this season, remains sidelined for the time being by a medial knee ligament injury – he ought to be back very soon but is at risk of missing the opportunity now to stake claims in green and gold ahead of the World Cup.
While on the subject of the Bok front row, a wee bit of pressure is arguably mounting on Adriaan Strauss, the back-up hooker to Du Plessis, to return to his proven best levels as quickly as possible.
He has been workmanlike rather than especially cutting-edged this year, both in his maiden season back at Loftus for the Bulls since his switch from lengthy service to the Cheetahs and in earliest duty for the 2015 Boks.
Where once Strauss was actually preferred for meaningful periods as Meyer’s Test first-choice to the combative Du Plessis, as things stand the Battleship Bismarck is back pretty firmly entrenched as the supreme hooker ...
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