Cape Town - Dylan Hartley versus Bismarck du Plessis ... which
of these combustible, yet massively competitive hookers keeps his head best
(either that, or loses it spectacularly) could be pivotal to the outcome of
Saturday’s Twickenham encounter between England and South Africa.
The collective stakes are high - albeit that they always are
between these old foes - as both come off losses the preceding weekend, England
to the All Blacks at the same venue and the Springboks at the hands of a
passionate Ireland, the Six Nations champions.
So for the losing outfit, expect a downgrade of some magnitude
in critics’ minds as far as their World Cup 2015 prospects are concerned - as
you might expect of any team surrendering two blue-chip Tests on the trot.
Against that backdrop, a particularly bruising,
attrition-based clash seems on the cards and discipline could play a huge part in
Hookers are an especially feisty breed, so the likely
head-to-head between Hartley and Du Plessis - very experienced,
fire-in-the-belly characters of the No 2 shirt in the international landscape - could lead to the occasional flashpoint.
It is a position that came under “indiscretion” focus in
both teams’ most recent matches, even if in the Bok case it revolved around
their substitute in the berth, Adriaan Strauss, as he was debatably
yellow-carded in the last quarter by Frenchman Romain Poite - modern
refereeing nemesis of SA - for his challenge in the air on Irish fullback Rob
The offence seemed to warrant a penalty, but fell short of
being malicious and the normally even-tempered Strauss looked understandably
bemused as he trudged off, no doubt aware that he inadvertently represented a
further nail in the Bok coffin on the day.
Coach Heyneke Meyer is not averse to rotating his two
premier hookers, so there is a chance Strauss will run out at the start at
Twickenham, although it seems unlikely as Du Plessis played his part fulsomely in
the Bok set-piece monopoly - both scrums and lineouts - which was some solace
to pick from the Dublin debris.
He is also a powerful stealer at the breakdown and that is
an area the Boks need to buck up in against England.
That said, indiscipline can get the better of him at times
and he was penalised twice by Poite - the man who unjustly sent him for an
early shower against New Zealand in Auckland last year - for side entry
It can safely be said, based on historical evidence, that Du
Plessis walks a bit of a tightrope between legal aggression and transgression
of the laws, though the Boks may take some consolation from a southern hemisphere
referee, Steve Walsh, taking charge against England.
If he has suitably done his homework, Walsh will be well
aware that Hartley, the home team’s first-choice hooker, carries a greatly longer
rap sheet than Du Plessis does.
He is the classic, near-eternal “niggler” and there was
evidence of that again as he provoked a reaction out of All Black counterpart
Dane Coles last weekend; Coles lashed out with his boot, striking England
captain Chris Robshaw, after Hartley had tugged his opposite number’s jersey.
Neutral observers mindful of Hartley’s reputation for
conduct of that kind - and sometimes significantly more thuggish, too – would
have been irked that the retaliator copped a yellow card whilst the instigator
was left chuckling, perhaps, as New Zealand’s 14-man disadvantage helped spark
an England mini-revival late on.
Even before his latest little spot of gamesmanship that
worked perversely in his favour, the Northampton-based, now 58-cap Hartley
(ironically NZ-born) has often attracted publicity for all the wrong reasons.
Shortly before the All Black Test, one London newspaper
pointed out that Hartley, 28, has received bans totalling a jaw-dropping 48
weeks in his first-class career.
His violations include eye-gouging, biting, punching, and infamously
calling referee Wayne Barnes a “f***ing cheat”.
But he is also a key factor in giving England go-forward,
just as Du Plessis does for South Africa; you wonder which of these immovable
objects will be budged backwards on Saturday.
Broadly speaking, though, the Springboks must channel their
aggression constructively and cleverly at Twickenham if they are to bounce back
fast from the Irish reverse.
Not being wound up by the dubious wiles of Dylan Hartley
might be a good start?
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writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing