Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - It has been arguably the most hotly-contested duel for a Springbok starting berth in recent times … and seems unlikely to surrender that status during this World Cup-dominated year.
Vastly experienced loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira against younger candidate Steven Kitshoff for the No 1 jersey provides the most pleasant of quandaries for head coach Rassie Erasmus and company.
Both can count themselves among the very best in their specialist position planet-wide; having the pair dually available for the SA cause is a great bonus and source of assurance.
Although they don’t ever get to scrum down directly against each other, of course - what a battle that might be? - it can be taken for granted that the duo will both have fast-approaching 2019 international needs almost as strongly in mind when they take to the Newlands pitch on Saturday for a Super Rugby likely “eliminator” between the Stormers and Sharks.
When the teams last met at Kings Park much earlier in the campaign, in round three, Kitshoff was an injury-enforced absentee for the Capetonians in their grimly-fought 16-11 triumph - he had damaged a hamstring in pre-season, meaning Ali Vermaak deputised competently at loosehead.
But the 27-year-old has been firmly back in the frame for several weeks now, almost to the point that he has seemed slightly overplayed at a time when other senior personnel have been falling like the proverbial flies in the Stormers camp.
Huge Bok rival Mtawarira, meanwhile, has had a slightly opposite phenomenon: he began Super Rugby 2019 in fine fettle for the Sharks, but then succumbed to a grade one knee ligament tear against the Waratahs in Sydney on April 27 and has been curtailed to the side-lines since.
So his return for this must-win occasion is unbelievably timely for the KwaZulu-Natalians.
The “Beast” could be just a little rusty after more than a month and a half out of action – though 50 minutes to an hour against the old coastal foes should be well within in the old pro’s grasp and is a common enough shift duration before substitution begins to occur in the front row department these days anyway.
On the plus side, too, his enforced layoff will have ensured some mental freshening for the 107-cap Springbok veteran, whereas Stormers No 1 counterpart Kitshoff could, contrastingly, do with some down time ahead of the Rugby Championship which kicks off in mid-July.
Apart from his chores at the coalface, Kitshoff has been saddled with the extra responsibilities of acting Stormers leadership at times in recent weeks, even if he has appeared to handle that side of things with some aplomb and cool-headedness.
If anything, both his scrumming and ball-carrying activity in open play have not quite met his more customary, destructive highest standards of late, so restoring a truly fire-and-brimstone feel to his game against the Mtawarira-infused Sharks would benefit both him, as a Bok contender next month, and his franchise more immediately, enormously.
Whichever of the two big-name front-rankers asserts himself more conspicuously in the eyes of an eagle-eyed Bok mastermind Erasmus on Saturday could well find himself boasting inside lane for the Bok XV to take to the field against Australia at Emirates Airline Park on July 20.
Traditionally, Mtawarira has much more commonly been the start-out man since the pair joined each other as the premier looseheads in the Bok squad.
Although much of his reign has been pre-Kitshoff, the popular Sharks figure has begun 95 of his 107 Tests (88.78 percent), whereas the younger customer - who should have a clearer road to first-choice status after RWC 2019, when his squad-mate will be 34 and probably stepping down - only nine of his 37 times (24.32 percent).
That said, in three of his last four appearances in the 2018 season, Kitshoff turned the tables by getting the SA starting nod, with Mtawarira in the unusual role of “supersub”.
Be sure neither wants that mantle in 2019.
Seconds out …
15 Dillyn Leyds, 14 Seabelo Senatla, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Edwill van der Merwe, 10 Josh Stander, 9 Jano Vermaak1, 8 Jaco Coetzee, 7 Johan du Toit, 6 Ernst van Rhyn, 5 Chris van Zyl, 4 Cobus Wiese, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff (captain)
Substitutes: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 David Meihuizen, 20 Chris Massyn, 21 Justin Phillips, 22 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 23 Dan Kriel
15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 S'bu Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Louis Schreuder (captain), 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Tyler Paul, 6 Jacques Vermeulen, 5 Hyron Andrews, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Kerron van Vuuren, 1 Tendai Mtawarira
Substitutes: 16 Cullen Collopy, 17 Mzamo Majola, 18 Thomas du Toit, 19 Gideon Koegelenberg, 20 Luke Stringer, 21 Cameron Wright, 22 Jeremy Ward, 23 Rhyno Smith
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