Tighthead prop concerns for Boks

2013-06-03 00:00

AN embarrassment of riches at hooker … still some issues right next door at tighthead prop, though.

Not unlike Springbok squads of the pretty recent past, the latest one revealed by coach Heyneke Meyer this weekend — generally warmly received for its deft balance between emerging youth and proven experience — only serves as another powerful reminder of how magnificently stocked the South African cupboard is in the No. 2 position.

At the same time, the job of ensuring the important right shoulder in the scrums at tighthead prop remains one marked by doubt and instability should incumbent Jannie du Plessis (30) either lose his lustre violently or succumb to injury.

In truth, there is a relative dearth of quality No. 3s the world over, meaning that the best of them also tend to get overplayed — Du Plessis is no exception, and the Sharks’ awful levels of absenteeism across the playing positions this year have meant an undesirable strain once more on his body and mind.

He can be excused if he has shown a tendency, either knowingly or unwittingly, to pace himself to some degree this year, although his A-game may well be required against the Italians, who share with several other Six Nations teams a keen, uncompromising scrummaging ethic.

A few weeks ago, there seemed good reason to assume that Du Plessis’s Sharks colleague Wiehahn Herbst had pushed himself to the front of the queue to be the designated Bok No. 3 back-up … but his best form has slightly tapered off at a bad time more recently.

It has meant a rather sudden elevation to the Test picture for the Cheetahs’ Super Rugby tighthead Lourens Adriaanse, a selection that will be greeted with special smiles in both Bloemfontein and not-too-faraway Kimberley, where Adriaanse is contracted to Griquas for Currie Cup purposes.

At 25, the 115 kg and relatively stockily-built Adriaanse is a bit like a bottle of three-year-old Shiraz: developing nicely, but still with room for further maturity.

Meyer cannot be blamed for fast-tracking the Paarl Gym and Maties product, given the dearth of really good tightheads domestically and taking into account that the even younger Frans Malherbe (22) of the Stormers is currently sidelined.

Similarly, there oughtn’t to be major objections to Adriaanse’s Cheetahs colleague Trevor Nyakane, a specialist loosehead, also getting a maiden call-up, although he is likely to be only third cab off the No. 1 rank at this stage, behind Beast Mtawarira and another favourite from Bloem, the behemoth Coenie Oosthuizen.

If Saturday’s Super Rugby derby between the Cheetahs and Bulls confirmed one thing, even as they bossed most other departments in a well-merited victory, it was that the Pretoria-based franchise have some ongoing scrum woes.

Certainly the halo of someone like Werner Kruger, their seasoned tighthead, has continued to only slip — not too long ago he was a regular part of the national squad furniture (he has seldom shirked work in open play) but his name is likely only to have come up cursorily in Meyer’s thoughts this year as execution of his chief duty has been poor.

As for the immeasurably rosier hooker situation, the Boks will almost certainly feature the yeoman Adriaan Strauss in the jersey for the first Test of the winter against Italy in Durban on Saturday. Chiliboy Ralepelle will be a suitably mobile back-up resource on the bench and the steadily rehabilitating Bismarck du Plessis presumably desperately close to a slice of the action after many months of inactivity with his serious knee injury.

This Saturday may be a tad too soon to expect last year’s first-choice Du Plessis (considered by many the world leader in his trade before his 2012 mishap against Argentina at Newlands) to feature in the Bok match-day squad, although if he gets an enthusiastic medical go-ahead you never know.

It is a comforting thought that three excellent players take care of this very specialist department for the Springboks, and that still lurking just on the outside is someone like fit-again Tiaan Liebenberg.

The robust Stormers stalwart put in a second industrious showing on the trot since returning to the middle of their front row, helping ensure front-foot status for his team in the clash with the Kings in hideous Newlands conditions on Saturday.

Before too long Liebenberg’s freshness, considering his own prior layoff of several weeks, may become an attractive proposition to Meyer again, especially as Strauss has been fielded to the point of exhaustion by the Cheetahs and needs clever “management” for the remainder of the season.

If Liebenberg is South Africa’s current fourth choice at hooker, several other countries have reason for significant envy.

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