Cape Town – Considering
that both teams are missing quite substantial lists of normally most treasured
personnel, fans at Emirates Airline Park for the first Test between South
Africa and England on Saturday still have plenty to look forward to.
At least on
found it no problem isolating a handful of individual scraps for the
Johannesburg showdown that especially grab me …
Duane Vermeulen v Billy Vunipola
rugby player gets “struck by a steamroller” (or read: uniquely bone-juddering,
flattening, lights-out hit) at least once in his career. A then fresh-faced
Eben Etzebeth once did it to Bismarck du Plessis, no less, at Newlands. But
then Big Eben’s own receiving experience came along: and it was against England
loose-forward piledriver Vunipola at Twickenham in 2016, an event leading to
his concussion-related side-lining for a while. It certainly told you
everything you needed to know, if you didn’t already, about the English No 8’s
physicality levels. This is just his third Test appearance (following own
long-term injury) since late 2016, and his head-to-head with similarly
unyielding, street-smart “Thor” Vermeulen may go a long way to determining
which pack gets more consistent go-forward in general play.
Siya Kolisi v Tom Curry
What a huge,
poignant date for Kolisi! The significance of his leadership appointment has
been well-documented in both countries in the lead-up to this clash, and the
Stormers-based flank has to try to put all those elements aside and snap
quickly into key objective No 1: restore faith (pretty fast) in the Bok brand,
simply by starting to win matches. His naturally animated captaincy style ought
to help over the next three weeks, but there’s more on his plate … much more.
He must also confirm anew, after a so-so Super Rugby campaign, his suitability
to the Bok open-side role. He is not a natural fetcher, after all, enjoying the
big hits and wide-area charges as well, and up against him (remember an English
open-sider customarily wears seven) is a more orthodox pilferer and nippy
customer in 19-year-old rookie Curry from Sale Sharks. It’s just his second
cap, and in a truly imposing cauldron … advantage Siya, perhaps?
Trevor Nyakane/Wilco Louw v Mako
prop is indeed the key pillar of the scrum, it is a little unsettling that the
Boks have two men bracketed for the job against what will almost certainly be a
sturdy - at very worst? – English pack. First choice Nyakane is harbouring a
rib problem (not exactly the most convenient niggle to have for set-piece
purposes?) so there’s every chance, I suspect, that Louw’s own useful bulk will
have to be employed to try to tame the gargantuan Saracens loose-head Vunipola,
also a fierce carrier and on his 50th Test date. Later on, the
direct scrap between possible Bok impact man Thomas du Toit - if brought hastily
into the matchday mix, almost certainly the heftiest front-ranker on display on
the day - and another gnarly English loose-head in Joe Marler (56 caps) should
be barely less compelling.
Handre Pollard v George Ford
pretty strongly as a Test captaincy possibility himself in the ongoing absence
of Warren Whiteley, flyhalf Pollard will be a critical leadership figure and
tactical string-puller in an otherwise callow-looking Bok backline on Saturday.
Highveld-based with the Bulls, he knows how to be a general in such hard, pacey
conditions, and his willingness to take the ball flat could also prove beneficial
here. Mind you, Pollard really comes up against “two” shrewd flyhalves, as
England have Ford (45 appearances) in that channel and, just outside him at
twelve, far-from-gun-shy Owen Farrell (62, the majority of them at pivot). In a
Test that is difficult to call result-wise, place-kicking success percentages
could also become a big factor.
S’bu Nkosi v Mike Brown
English scribe Mick Cleary (Daily Telegraph) tweeted in disgruntled fashion
after Eddie Jones’s team revelation: “No idea why England pick Mike Brown as a
wing.” The 32-year-old stalwart fullback indeed revisits that berth, on
Saturday, for the first time since a solid phase there between 2012 and 2013.
With the stocky, exciting debutant Bok No 14 Nkosi a relative unknown to the
English, is this his opportunity to catch Brown positionally rusty on the
visiting left side of the park? We shall see. But remember also, in the England
man’s favour, that he can be an exhilarating, elusive runner on the break and
also possesses canny tactical kicking skills that will prove a searching
examination of the Sharks novice’s all-round game.
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