Bismarck du Plessis (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – Combative, senior hooker Bismarck du Plessis is the most glaring victim of a Springbok selection purge for their second RWC 2015 match against Samoa in Birmingham on Saturday (17:45 SA time).
The Boks have made as many as eight changes to their starting XV following the humiliation at the hands of Japan, and many of them were expected.
But in the speculative sides suggested in quite widespread sections of the South African media just ahead of Wednesday’s announcement by coach Heyneke Meyer, all failed to list the unexpected change for the No 2 shirt, where Adriaan Strauss is promoted off the bench.
Not only does the 74-cap Du Plessis fall out of the XV, he tumbles from the entire match-day squad, with mobile, Saracens-based Schalk Brits (ninth appearance in green and gold if he gets into the fray at Villa Park) earning an opportunity to contribute now off the bench.
It is impossible not to suspect -- despite Meyer’s statement that Du Plessis will feature again as the tournament advances -- that there may be more to this banishment than meets the eye, although Brits, with his stepping skills and general stealth, is certainly an attractive presence to boast among substitutes.
He offers something different to both Du Plessis and Strauss, traditionally more at home at closer quarters.
Still, the “Battleship Bismarck” remains widely considered one of the toughest exponents of his trade in the world, and did appear tailor-made physically for the redemptive task facing the Boks against no-nonsense, sometimes even violent Samoa.
There have been rumblings since the bad day at the Brighton office that Meyer and various senior players were at odds (and it would be relatively uncharacteristic if so) over the tactical approach as the Japanese game dragged on to its unfortunate climax for the huge favourites.
Perhaps Du Plessis has been branded prime culprit for that, although in fairness he had left the pitch by the 54th minute, which was well before the drama and near-chaos of the final quarter for the Boks.
But Bok indiscipline on the day was another drawback, as evidenced by the way French official Jerome Garces punished them at the breakdown – he was especially severe at times on the now-departed Sharks stalwart, although some judgements looked very borderline and debatable.
This represents a first sidelining as first-choice hooker for Du Plessis in six Test matches: he had run out upfront in every SA game since coming off the bench (with Strauss the starter) against Italy in Padova at the end of last year.
It is also just possible that Meyer has shrewdly cashed in on the fact that Strauss, who did look full of vigour when he appeared off the bench against Japan, will be earning his 50th cap on Saturday.
He made a point at Wednesday’s media briefing of saying that the Bulls man had specifically asked not to run on first on match day to mark the occasion in the traditional way – all Strauss wanted, he said, was a winning Bok effort.
It is also true to say that Strauss, who has been a yeoman Bok servant for more than seven years, has enjoyed periods before where Meyer has preferred him for a few Test matches on the trot to Du Plessis.
It was during one of those spells that Strauss was the “main man” in the last Bok Test against Samoa, at Loftus in 2013, when they won 56-23.
The starting hooker infamously had his testicles squeezed by James So’oialo and understandably wasn’t best pleased about it – the judicial officer later dubiously ruled it “accidental”.
South Africa are going to have to be ballsy in slightly different ways this weekend, and there is bound to be a school of thought, without meaning any special disrespect to Strauss, that Du Plessis ought to have been identified as a top Bok enforcer for the spicy occasion against a Samoan side containing few shrinking violets.
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