Cape Town – Allister Coetzee will have
plenty of head-scratchers when he pulls together his keenly-awaited first
Springbok team to tackle Ireland next month … lock won’t be one of them.
Or put it this way: it will offer up at
least one poser, at No 5, of the entirely pleasant, embarrassment-of-riches type.
The second row is highly likely to be the
one area where continuity will reign supreme, and that is even despite the
retirement from internationals of the most capped Bok of all time, Victor
Although injured a fair bit of the time,
the great lineout master was among the quartet of specialist second-rowers
employed by previous coach Heyneke Meyer at the 2015 World Cup.
But the other three, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de
Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit -- all with best years quite feasibly still
ahead of them -- are so firmly in the mix for 2016 plans that you can pretty
much pencil them in already for roles among the match-day 23 for the first Test
against the Irish at Newlands on June 11.
It seems increasingly safe to assume that 24-year-old
juggernaut Etzebeth will be able to resume his highly-valued duty as the No 4
enforcer where few, if any, are superior in global rugby right now: after
several weeks off nursing a calf injury, he may be included in the Stormers
party to travel to Singapore to tackle the Sunwolves on Saturday week.
Even he features minimally or not at all
there, Etzebeth still has derbies against the Bulls and Cheetahs to sharpen up
for the June Tests.
He is the Bok first choice at four by some
distance, as things stand, and of course hugely well-known to new SA mastermind
Coetzee, who confidently introduced him to Super Rugby as a rookie at the
Capetonian franchise back in 2012.
Things are more competitive – and then some
– when it comes to the pick for the No 5 shirt, however.
Cheetahs iron man De Jager formed a
critically-acclaimed alliance with Etzebeth at times (while the ageing Matfield
nursed a nagging hamstring problem) during RWC 2015, where the Boks eventually
earned bronze status, wowing scribes and spectators alike with their
combination of grunt, high work-rate and athleticism.
People who aren’t exposed to regular Super
Rugby viewing might be inclined to believe it only obvious that the Etzebeth-De
Jager combination carry on in June where they left off in green and gold a few
Yet that, of course, would be overlooking
the seriously mounting claims of Etzebeth’s Stormers lock-mate Du Toit for
starts against Ireland.
Just on Super Rugby form this season, the
23-year-old Swartlander, who has effectively returned to his roots by signing
for the franchise, arguably edges out De Jager.
The latter has put in some honest enough
shifts for the Cheetahs, but is possibly also dragged down a little at times by
the collective struggler of the Bloemfontein outfit, now sporting only two wins
from nine starts.
For pure dynamism and all-round efficiency,
Du Toit, the less experienced Bok – eight caps, but only one start – has been
sensational for the Stormers, culminating in a colossal display even in defeat
against the Waratahs on Saturday, when the home pack would have felt entitled
to believe they’d done enough to tee up a win that was snatched away at the
The blond unit has stepped up superbly as
the “senior” lock in the weeks when they have been minus Etzebeth, and is certainly
among the tight forwards at Newlands most worthy of the feet-up time this week
as the Stormers experience a bye.
Pleasingly, both De Jager and Du Toit are
also appealing bench second-rowers for international purposes, as they can
confidently cover both the four and five roles, so it is very hard to believe
Coetzee will go anywhere beyond Etzebeth, De Jager and Du Toit for his maiden
squad of 23, regardless of which of the last-named two begins the first Test in
the traditional lineout-manager slot.
Let’s not forget that the country is
blessed with a booming array of other young second-rowers pushing their way to
the fore; just one of late is the Bulls beanpole RG Snyman, 21, who was
imperious in the roasting of the Force in Perth.
But if the Bok coach is fretting over
precisely which of De Jager and Du Toit to station at No 5 in early June, it is
worth remembering that there will be, fitness permitting, an engrossing
head-to-head encounter at Newlands on May 28 when the Stormers entertain the
Cheetahs – conveniently a fortnight before the Test opener against Ireland.
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing