Willie le Roux (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Will Willie le Roux prove a Springbok game-breaking ace, as we well know he can, or might his defensive shortcomings be shown up in the predicted wet-weather World Cup semi-final against New Zealand at Twickenham on Saturday?
That is merely one of several potentially pivotal issues under the microscope when you weigh up the respective line-ups to be fielded by both great rugby nations for the crunch encounter.
There is so much quality among the starting 30 players on paper that it is hard to pinpoint or predict what the genuinely instrumental individual battles by position will be.
A few really obvious, well-established grand rivalries flare up anew, like Etzebeth v Retallick, Vermeulen v Read ... but here’s a slightly different quartet suggested by Sport24 to get the debate cranked up.
Willie le Roux v Ben Smith
The battle between the wings has understandably generated much hype, though the vastly experienced SA combo of physically-sturdy JP Pietersen and ever-courageous and opportunistic Bryan Habana is capable of neutralising NZ’s explosive Julian Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder. Fortunes at fullback may just prove have a more important bearing on things, a major question being “Which Willie le Roux will pitch up?”. The type of character to blow confusingly hot and cold, the Bok No 15’s display in the “basics” department against Wales was cause for concern, and the All Blacks are sure to test him defensively as frequently as they can -- opposite number Smith’s mazy running could be a big part of that. Mind you, there’s enough offensive X-factor from both slippery characters to potentially turn the tide either way at Twickers ...
Fourie du Preez v Aaron Smith
There are dangerous runners galore in wider berths for both teams ... but they always say a smooth-flowing pipeline in rugby depends on the quality of service and tactical nous and confidence offered from scrumhalf. Given the likely, very different templates to be employed by the two sides, established SA legend and late quarter-final lifesaver Du Preez will be a priceless element in the Boks’ more conservative approach with his kicking acumen and overall generalship. Smith, meanwhile, is a famously lethal sniper who will try to trouble and harass his ageing opposite number around the fringes and weave his own brand of magic in the All Blacks’ broad, ball-in-hand surges. Interestingly, they have only started against each other once at Test level, at Ellis Park in 2013 (NZ won 38-27).
Lood de Jager (if passed fit) v Sam Whitelock
Of course the duel at No 4 between Eben Etzebeth and Brodie Retallick will be titanic and bone-crunching yet again; they are both so good that they practically neutralise each other. So instead my focus at lock is on the No 5 athletes and lineout callers. The first obstacle for Bok fans to fret over is De Jager’s touch-and-go fitness: will he be properly over his foot injury suffered against Wales last week? One of the individual stars of the tournament for his ball-carrying exploits and high tackle count thus far, the lanky youngster did hint that he would be biting the bullet to take part in this one. Mind you, the wily, 71-cap Whitelock will be only too aware that if De Jager starts at all and is then labouring at some stage, he will only resume his deep-rooted rivalry with a certain Victor Matfield, 125 caps of monster experience infused off the bench!
Tendai Mtawarira v Owen Franks
On the other side of the scrum, Frans Malherbe and Joe Moody boast similar levels of inexperience as starters for pressure-cooker occasions like this one, so that’s an intriguing tussle too. But my gut feel is that the sometimes moody Mtawarira in the Bok loosehead berth getting the better of stocky NZ tighthead Franks could be more pivotal to South African dominance (or not!) at the set-piece. The Beast has tended to go “good game, bad game” at this World Cup ... so on that basis perhaps he is due another snorter in the semi after looking disappointingly innocuous against Wales in the earlier round. A few forceful early carries to inspire that cult chant from the stands should get the Zimbabwean-born No 1’s fires suitably stoked.
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