Cape Town – It may sound cruel and perhaps over-hasty to suggest it, but I would argue that time is already running a little short for Adriaan Strauss to cement his Springbok captaincy.
Heaven forbid, if South Africa – 1-0 down in the three-Test affair after the Newlands debacle -- lose the home series to under-strength Ireland, or even limp unconvincingly over the line for a narrow triumph, the skipper will surrender plenty of the public favour that deservedly greeted his appointment by Allister Coetzee recently.
Going down to the Irish in a home series, after that nation had not previously won even a solitary Test match on our soil before Saturday, would amount to one of the most inglorious chapters of the Springbok saga.
It might also be enough for the national coach, who only named the blond front-rower in the capacity for these three Tests, to seek an alternative man for the role ahead of the greater rigours of the Rugby Championship.
For Strauss to have a far better chance of nailing down the duty on a more long-term basis, not only do the Boks need to claw back smartly to grab the spoils 2-1 in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth respectively, but in at least one of those matches also do so with a good bit to spare and strong evidence of a dynamic new way forward.
There is, obviously, a case for protesting “give him a proper chance to bed down as leader” … but I would argue that there is a need for greater urgency in Strauss’s case.
That is because he is still not decisively nailed down as first-choice in his specific position of hooker, a situation that has stalked him more or less throughout his Test career which began in mid-2008 and is still characterised by 31 of his 55 caps being as a substitute.
The big impediment, of course, has usually been a certain Bismarck Wilhelm du Plessis … and who can say that Strauss has truly banished his seasoned rival’s not inconsiderable shadow?
Let’s just say that situation didn’t work any closer to Strauss’s favour at the weekend, primarily given his own under-delivery as individual – albeit in a collectively lethargic and strangely disunited Bok pack – and the fact that he failed to exert himself as captain on a difficult evening when animated motivation and clear direction might just have righted an increasingly listing Bok ship.
Admittedly under very different, lower-tier circumstances and in a different hemisphere, the hard-nosed Du Plessis produced another dynamic, brawny showing fewer than 24 hours later as Jake White’s Montpellier secured their French Top 14 semi-final spot with a 28-9 thumping of Castres.
Whatever your point of view on the argument of the Boks “moving on” – or not – from the 32-year-old Du Plessis, I still fancy that he may remain South Africa’s best and importantly most feared hooker.
The latter part is relevant: if you were to ask several coaches or senior players from the world-leading All Blacks (and they provided honest answers) which Springboks they consider their most formidable foes, I am pretty confident Du Plessis would feature among, say, the top five names.
He is always a bit penalty-prone as he constantly pushes boundaries, but in Test rugby you need a few of those types of characters and his pluses include not only being an assertive presence in the tight-loose – where the Boks were almost “bullied” on Saturday – but a major contributor in securing turnovers.
The Springboks fell short of expectation in that department among the many others at Newlands, and people have short memories if they’ve forgotten how formidable the former Sharks stalwart is in either getting over the ball fast and determinedly at ruck-time or wrestling the ball out of enemy carriers’ hands, aided by his awesome strength in the bicep area.
That is not to say that Strauss, a proven international in his own right, doesn’t shade Du Plessis in certain areas: at his best he may well be a stealthier linking player and his basics like lineout throwing can’t be pooh-poohed either. There have been also times in the past when he has fittingly been the superior pick of the two.
Nor should this be viewed as a specific “bring back Bissie” campaign on my part at this point; it is not.
Strauss is a better player, and captain, than we witnessed in Saturday’s overall Bok sickener, and the Bloemfontein-born customer should be among several players who will appreciate the trek north to firm, lung-busting Highveld conditions for the second Test at Emirates Airline Park this weekend.
All I am saying is that he requires a more prominent showing there, in an all-embracing sense, if he is to simultaneously keep the pro-Du Plessis lobby reasonably muted and confirm his own Test leadership suitability …
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