Boks go the raw route at lock

2012-06-06 14:14
Eben Etzebeth and Juandre Kruger (Gallo)
Cape Town – From vast experience to total rookies ... that shows how violently the wheel has turned in the second row for Springbok rugby over the course of a few months.

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Wednesday’s Springbok team announcement for the first Test against England at Mr Price Kings Park this weekend brought confirmation that the lock pairing on Saturday will be fresh-faced Stormers phenomenon Eben Etzebeth, who completes a truly meteoric rise in 2012, and Bulls “middle” man Juandre Kruger.

Neither boasted a single international cap before coach Heyneke Meyer revealed his Durban hand, so the associated risk is obvious and something that the tourists will doubtless attempt to target – especially as both lanky customers will also be on the receiving end of the Sharks’ Bismarck du Plessis’s throws for the first time in a game situation.

At the same time, few can quibble over their right to wear jerseys four and five respectively, based on Super Rugby form this season, even if a personal suspicion remains that Etzebeth may not be at optimal physical readiness for this taxing debut because of his particularly debilitating workload for his franchise right up to last Saturday at Loftus.

Still, the 20-year-old mauler has certainly shown the heart of a lion all year thus far, and his talent can hardly be called into doubt.

Peripheral circumstances taken aside, he deserves this crack in the green and gold just ahead of the slightly more seasoned Flip van der Merwe, who may see some meaningful service off the subs’ bench in the second half.

Kruger will also be treading into virgin rugby territory for him on Saturday, but at least with several years of greater first-class experience than his partner and a maiden cap aged a fairly gnarly 26.

The Paul Roos product, whose early weeks in Super Rugby 2012 were especially inspiring for the Bulls, also has handy knowledge of English rugby culture through his pretty acclaimed stint with Northampton.

Nevertheless, it is a sobering thought that the Boks enter this Test with zero prior caps at lock, after fielding now-departed old soldiers Victor Matfield and Danie Rossouw there last time out: in the controversial 11-9 World Cup quarter-final loss to Australia in Wellington.

The combined tally of Test caps in the second row on that occasion? A far-from-trifling 172, even if Rossouw earned plenty of his in loose forward capacities.

Coach Meyer’s eventual choice for his XV had started to look fairly obvious for a couple of days ahead of the announcement, and stayed that way, so there is unlikely to be anything like the degree of divisive public thought that greeted his broader squad unveiled after the Bulls-Stormers derby last Saturday night.

 Here’s something else to chew on: for all the talk about his apparent obsession with Bulls folk in either his back-up management or team plans, the run-on Bok side for the first Test against England will actually feature most swollen Sharks representation – as many as seven if you include their recently re-recruited Frans Steyn, who comfortingly operates at No 12 here after looking so good in the role before his untimely injury at the World Cup.

At least the XV is a broad reflection of where South African Super Rugby conference strength firmly lies, with all of the Sharks, Bulls (five men selected here) and Stormers (three) very much in the playoffs hunt when that competition resumes.

There are six survivors from the team which had the Wellington heartbreak against the Wallabies at the World Cup: JP Pietersen, new captain Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Morne Steyn, Jannie du Plessis and Pierre Spies.

The other new cap in the side -- apart from the locks – dynamic and versatile Sharks loose forward Marcell Coetzee, is a pleasing presence even if performing the open-side role is a relatively new requirement of him and he is bound to be measured sternly against debatable omission, the Cheetahs’ little burrower Heinrich Brussow.

Some people will lament Zane Kirchner being the favoured fullback (he replaces 2011 incumbent Pat Lambie who shifts down to the reserves) as he goes through phases in his career where he can look a little too predictable and robotic.

But he has played with improved zest and skill again this season in a Bulls side not struggling too much to cross the whitewash, despite his strength in the tactical kicking and high-bomb departments probably being the main grounds for his inclusion in Meyer’s no-frills game-plan on Saturday.

Most emergency bases seem suitably enough covered on the bench, although prop intelligentsia –oh yes, there is such a lobby! -- may become concerned if veteran tighthead Jannie du Plessis gets injured early and Coenie Oosthuizen suddenly has to take up arms on the right side of the scrum he is still much less familiar with.

Still, Meyer is known to believe the big specimen potentially has a regular future at No 3.

Other eyebrows will understandably be raised over the athletic, industrious Chiliboy Ralepelle being overlooked as reserve hooker for Adriaan Strauss ... it may be only a temporary, horses-for-courses measure if Meyer is wary of England’s likely scrumming competence?


South Africa:

15 Zane Kirchner, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Jean de Villiers (captain), 12 Frans Steyn, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira

Substitutes: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Coenie Oosthuizen, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Keegan Daniel, 20 Ruan Pienaar, 21 Pat Lambie, 22 Wynand Olivier


*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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