Cape Town – In an unusual state of affairs, the three most
physically imposing backline players statistically in Saturday’s Castle Rugby
Championship clash between the All Blacks and Springboks in Christchurch will
all be New Zealanders.
Back-in-form left wing Julian “The Bus” Savea (1.92m,
109kg), and the centre pairing of Ryan Crotty (1.81m, 97kg) and Malakai Fekitoa
(1.87m, 99kg) will go into the contest knowing that nobody among the visiting
back division will quite match up to them in the muscle stakes.
Yes, the All Blacks
have often in modern times had at least one near-freak, unmatched juggernaut to
run at the Boks – Jonah Lomu, Tana Umaga and Ma’a Nonu spring quickly to mind –
but that has generally been countered in the brawn department by South Africa
fielding several suitably tall and sturdy backs of their own, to avoid being
too intimidated in “tale of the tape” terms.
For all the talk of the Boks trying to embrace new, more
daring ways and thus potentially being more partial to some twinkle-toed
customers regardless of their vital statistics, size does still matter in rugby
terms, especially if – as the All Blacks do – a team can boast athletes
combining sheer, door-smashing power with explosive pace.
It is for that reason that a well-merited theory is doing
the punditry rounds in New Zealand that their more robust backs, even if
sometimes simply to punch the initial hole for silkier characters around them,
will wish to have a special “go” at the still makeshift-looking and
uncharacteristically lightweight Bok backline unit.
The issue did not escape the attention this week of an All
Black legend-laden panel on the NZ television chat show The Breakdown, including anchor Jeff Wilson, John Kirwan and Ian
They were clearly, collectively pretty surprised at how the
Boks have moved away from a robust feel to their backline, agreeing that it is strange
to see South Africa not field, for instance, “a big twelve” – the relatively
diminutive (though eternally tenacious) Juan de Jongh wears that jersey at AMI
The limited physical dimensions of flyhalf Elton Jantjies
were also scrutinised, amidst a suggestion that his channel would be targeted for
ball-in-hand attack, whilst the panel added to the pressure on the baby-faced
Lions pivot by suggesting he has been running lines of his own that are too
lateral for the Boks, to the detriment of those outside him.
A scrumhalf operating at wing, in the shape of Francois
Hougaard, was another factor hardly escaping their analytical attention.
With the current All Blacks mixing up their running vibrancy
with no lack of astute tactical kicking, a further concern for Bok supporters may
well be that the national team’s aerial contesting – perhaps an additional
signal of their shortcomings in backline height? – isn’t looking especially
There is little to no justification for questioning the
spirit or desire of the Springbok starting back division re-selected en masse
for this weekend despite the disappointing reverse to the Wallabies in
The old saying of the “size of the fight in the dog, rather
than the size of the dog in the fight” being what counts certainly still holds
plenty of merit.
But the All Blacks are nevertheless bound to endeavour quite
earnestly to make physical advantage in the backline work in their favour in
this Test, especially while the clamour back in South Africa for that meaty yet
skilful midfielder Rohan Janse van Rensburg (108kg) to “bulk up” the Boks
remains ignored at this point.
The Lions powerhouse was impressive on the front foot once
more in the Lions’ Currie Cup humdinger against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on
Thursday night, blasting over for a close-range try himself and teeing up
another through use of his amazing leg drive.
Should he get a call-up for the home return fixtures against
the Wallabies and All Blacks respectively, he would restore at least some
physical “balance” – necessary, I would argue – to the Bok back unit.
Remember that when last the Boks played New Zealand, the
narrowly-lost RWC 2015 semi-final, their backline was at least the match for
the All Blacks from a size point of view, as such sturdy customers as Handre
Pollard, Damian de Allende and JP Pietersen counted among the initial XV.
And when the Boks last beat the All Blacks on their own soil
in Hamilton in 2009 – no other team has managed that subsequently – the
fullback was big Francois Steyn (remember him?) and the midfield hardly
shrinking violets in build either: Jaque Fourie and Jean de Villiers.
Meanwhile, however, in the absence of their own
“bullmastiffs” behind the scrum, the 2016 Bok backs will need to show unified, unrelenting
terrier-like defensive qualities if they are to subdue on Saturday a wide
spectrum of raiders, given the All Blacks’ hunger for “total rugby” when
opportunities arise …
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