Cape Town – Which of his arsenal of extremely rookie
scrumhalves seems best suited to policing the unusually large and assertive Conor
Murray is likely to be influential in Allister Coetzee’s choice of Springbok starting
No 9 for the first Test against Ireland at Newlands on Saturday.
Between them, Rudy Paige, Faf de Klerk and Nic Groom boast a
flimsy two international caps … and both of them belong to the first-named
player with his 17 minutes against the United States and infamously token three
against Argentina at the 2015 World Cup.
Paige and De Klerk seem reasonably clear favourites to
feature in the match-day mix against the Irish this weekend, with the only
remaining head-scratcher being over which one cracks the up-front XV.
That issue has been clouded, perhaps, by the similar uncertainty
at flyhalf: before his finger injury, Lions pivot Elton Jantjies seemed fairly
strong favourite for the role, and that might well have simultaneously worked
in favour of his franchise colleague De Klerk providing him with his service
for the green-and-gold cause.
But as the Boks played a waiting game on Jantjies’ fitness
right into the match week, the prospect still existed that seasoned Pat Lambie
would instead wear No 10 -- and not automatically with De Klerk as his
Coach Coetzee has the additional quandary of deciding which
of his Test-naive “nines” he believes will hit the ground running, something
that is important considering that scrumhalf is one area where the otherwise
injury-hit tourists will be very smartly served through the presence of Murray.
The 27-year-old from Munster formed an acclaimed pairing
with flyhalf Johnny Sexton before the latter withdrew from the tour through
injury a few days ago, but he remains a serious danger man himself.
At least part of that is down to his unusual height for a scrumhalf:
1.88m, which in old-fashioned terminology makes him a comfortable six-footer.
He is also no shrinking violet physically at 96kg, and
sometimes operates like an additional loose forward for the Irish, to go with
his renowned game-management nous.
That “controlling” strength puts him a league not far off
Bok legend Fourie du Preez, who retired after RWC 2015 leaving a void which
will not easily be filled.
Even in the days when South Africa boasted major experience
at scrumhalf in the shape of Du Preez and Ulster-based (but currently
unavailable) Ruan Pienaar, they had their occasional angst down the years from
another tall customer in the No 9 game, Wales’s Mike Phillips; he retired from
Tests last year with 99 international caps.
So Murray is very much the “new” big unit of northern
hemisphere scrumhalves, and passionately spoken about in Ireland itself by
observers as already a candidate for that nation’s standout No 9 of all time –
a list that would include such icons as Peter Stringer and Colin Patterson,
although the latter’s career ended cruelly early with a knee injury suffered
against Griquas on the 1980 Lions tour here.
The Limerick-born player, who has tasted one win (2014) and
one defeat (2012) in Dublin previously against the Boks, will be additionally motivated
in his first appearance on SA turf by the knowledge that Newlands will see him
earn his 50th international cap, even if it will be his 48th
for Ireland specifically; Murray has also appeared twice for the British and
Irish Lions against the Wallabies during the 2013 tour.
Coetzee will obviously think to a good degree about the
specific attributes of his own options in the position as he moves toward
naming his first-choice man on Thursday, regardless of the imminent opponents
and their custodian of the No 9 jersey.
But it wouldn’t surprise me if at least some part of his
thinking is: how will my pick deal defensively with the unorthodox physical –
and other -- qualities of the streetwise opposite number?
And that’s not easy when none of your scrumhalves has come
close before to completing even one full match at the highest possible level.
Just based on Super Rugby 2016 form, perhaps the nippy
little De Klerk is likeliest starter, and if he does go head to head with
Murray it will be an interesting clash of styles as the 1.73m man from
Nelspruit is more renowned for his instinctive, game-breaking exploits than his
calm pulling of strategic strings or astute option-taking.
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing