Cape Town – When the Springboks took to the Twickenham turf
against England last weekend, their “old firm” in the prop department – Tendai
Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis – made it 125 caps and 108 starts between them.
In a sea change in terms of experience, this Saturday’s
combination, against Italy in Padova, will see the statistics plunge to 32
combined caps ... and a particularly flimsy four starts between Trevor Nyakane
and Coenie Oosthuizen as the first whistle sounds.
The situation has come about through coach Heyneke Meyer –
sensibly? – taking a longer-term view by plucking the weary Mtawarira right out
of the match 23, presumably to facilitate a fresher showing by the “Beast” in
the tour finale against stiffer foes (on paper) Wales in Cardiff a week later.
His hand had already been forced in the front row by the
injury at Twickenham to long-serving No 3 anchorman Du Plessis, which may have
also caused him to agonise for a bit before deciding to “rotate” another staple
part of the furniture in Mtawarira, creating an intriguing gap for Nyakane.
The burly, often jovial-faced Cheetahs loosehead will be
making his maiden start and land straight in a hot cauldron as he goes head to
head with the scrum-relishing Italians’ anticipated presence on the tighthead
side, the colossal and ring-smart Martin Castrogiovanni.
Will the 25-year-old have both the stamina (he is rather
more used to five-minute late cameos for the Boks) and nous to keep “Castro” at
bay? It is a huge examination, but hopefully an educative one.
Mtawarira, in the past few seasons, has been worked pretty
hard by South Africa: remember that it is quite customary for looseheads to get
longer game-time than their colleagues on the other side of the scrum.
The Sharks favourite has just struggled in recent weeks and
months to match his known best standards, both at the set-piece and in general
play, so sitting out a Test which the Boks will be strongly tipped to win could
be just the medicine for a rousing end to his year at the Millennium Stadium if
reinstalled a week on.
He began both games against Ireland and England on this
particular tour, and also started all but one of the Springboks’ six matches in
the 2014 Castle Rugby Championship.
Nor did Mtawarira get much respite in the sole Championship game
he was on the bench for: he came on soon after the start of the second half
against Argentina in Salta, on that unpleasant day when the Bok scrum was so
violently on the retreat.
Gurthro Steenkamp, who wore the No 1 jersey then, has looked
worryingly like a spent force at international level this season, but he may
get the opportunity to put that fear to rest on Saturday as he is back in
favour as a reserve; it will be a surprise if Nyakane goes the fullest
The same may well apply to Oosthuizen, also far more
accustomed to an impact capacity; whether he excels at tighthead or not (there
is still an army of doubters) Meyer may well wish to see at least a few minutes
of newcomer Julian Redelinghuys’s suitability to green-and-gold duty.
It is a risky, potentially vulnerable Bok front row
collectively this weekend, but a change of personnel is useful for World Cup
planning purposes, so the bigger picture cannot be discounted.
Even if hooker Adriaan Strauss is now on the Bulls’ books,
there is at least some all-Cheetahs recent familiarity to the front trio, which
is one source of comfort.
Besides, maybe we shouldn’t under-estimate their ability to
catch their Italian rivals off-guard?
Johan Goosen, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Jean de Villiers
(captain), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Duane
Vermeulen, 7 Teboho “Oupa” Mohoje, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Victor Matfield,
4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Trevor
Substitutes: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Gurthrö
Steenkamp, 18 Julian Redelinghuys, 19 Lood de Jager, 20 Nizaam Carr, 21
Francois Hougaard, 22 Handré Pollard, 23 Willie le Roux
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