Rugby Championship

Bags of good Bok locks … but best pair?

2018-08-10 14:00
Eben Etzebeth (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Rassie Erasmus may find his Springbok second-row selection fairly straightforward in the short term.

Why would the national coach wish to fix a department that ain’t broke, as they say?

So at very least for the Rugby Championship opener against Argentina in Durban on Saturday week, it is reasonable to believe that he will stick to the combination who started all three Tests in the 2-1 series victory over England during June: RG Snyman and Franco Mostert.

By the same principle, another of the booming arsenal of sterling Bok locks, versatile Pieter-Steph du Toit, played inspiringly enough at blindside flank in the final two Tests against the English to suggest that he will retain the No 7 jersey at Kings Park – unless there is a really strong desire to switch captain Siya Kolisi away from his current open-side role to the other side of the scrum.

The Snyman-Mostert alliance generally gave the Boks pleasing ascendancy in the second row during the England series, both showing all the right levels of physicality, mobility and scrummaging and lineout prowess.

Subsequently, the big-hearted Mostert was also one of relatively few Lions players to offer genuinely stout, game-long resistance to the formidable Crusaders in last weekend’s Super Rugby final in Christchurch.

He has played a lot of rugby of late, but “Sous” – regrettably now switching from the Johannesburg franchise to Johan Ackermann’s Gloucester - is also one of that rare breed of players whose juices never seem to dry up despite over-burdensome workloads.

As for the unusually tall (2.07m), but also powerful-framed Snyman, the 23-year-old has shown ample signs already that he could be a serious handful to any comers by the time the 2019 World Cup comes around in just over a year from now.

His first exposure to the demands of a full-scale Championship (next year it will be a single-round tournament, typical of RWC years) should only enhance his street-wisdom against some of the very best teams on the planet.

But what of the hardly trifling matter of a certain Eben Etzebeth?

Already South Africa’s premier lock for several years, the 26-year-old (thus still an attractive candidate for at least another two World Cups) has been a near nine-month write-off to all rugby while painstakingly going through the rehab process from what was clearly a serious, complex shoulder injury.

He is in the broad Bok squad for the Championship, but it is highly unlikely he is ready to vault straight into a starting lineup; certainly not for the back-to-back Tests against the Pumas.

It would simply be as relief, frankly, to see him get through 20 minutes or so unscathed as a substitute at some point in the tournament, creating more meteoric possibilities from there.

But once 67-cap Etzebeth eventually reaches maximum fitness again, Erasmus’s selection in the second row suddenly becomes more of a dilemma.

With his dream cocktail of natural, fiery competitiveness, muscularity and athleticism, the Stormers man is one of the most valued current Springboks: in short, if he’s healthy, Etzebeth plays.

When that time comes, a first-time partnership of Etzebeth and Snyman somehow seems enormously appealing.

It would mean Snyman shifting from present “front” duty to the No 5 berth, but he is highly adaptable as we already know from his Bulls tenure, where he generally operates at five when teamed up with hefty, similarly quite youthful colleague Jason Jenkins.

Put Etzebeth and Snyman together and, with due respect to the what-you-see-is-what-you-get toiler Mostert, you have two imposing specimens both brimful of X-factor at their specialist trade.

If that scenario comes into play at some point, Mostert, like Du Toit, may find that his versatility becomes both a virtue and impediment, as he would obviously be a rosy bench option.

In the meantime, expect both Mostert and Snyman to aim to play out of their skins to ensure they hang onto their starting berths.

It isn’t just Etzebeth, of course, looming as a major threat to breaking up their current alliance: lanky, also highly Test-proven Lood de Jager may be back in contention toward the end of the Championship after his pectoral muscle tear earlier in the season.

And even while De Jager rounds off his rehab, the country remains blessed anyway with a staggering array of second-rowers potentially sticking up their hands for World Cup tickets next year if their form warrants it.

They include fast-maturing Marvin Orie, already in Erasmus’s plans and now likely to be the Lions’ senior lock in 2019, JD Schickerling, Ruan Botha and the French-based behemoths Paul Willemse (still only 25) and Jacques du Plessis (24).

For the next fortnight and maybe slightly beyond, the Bok starters at lock look fairly logical, easy picks.

Sooner rather than later, coach Erasmus will face much more in the way of head-scratching.

In the nicest possible way …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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