Prop forward lore on its head as is Smit’s Bok role

2009-11-23 00:00

WHILE the smile is back on the face of South African rugby this morning, the 32-10 weekend win over Italy has also fuelled the long-running debate over captain John Smit’s role in the Springbok team.

The Springbok forwards — for the fourth successive game — were again given a rough ride by their European opponents and it was snappy play, and four tries, by their backs which took them to their win.

But it was the last quarter that provided the talking point of this game, as coach Peter de Villiers produced a new front-row with replacements, loosehead Beast Mtawarira and B.J. Botha on the tighthead, joining Smit who moved from prop to hooker.

We are told by those who profess to know about the dark underworld of the front-row that a strong scrum is the product of hours of preparation, and it requires input from all eight forwards with at least one strong scrummaging, Bakkies Botha-type, lock.

But after an hour in Udine on Saturday, the front-row was magically transformed. Tighthead (Botha), who had flown in from holiday in Durban on Thursday and practised only briefly with the Boks, packed down alongside Smit, making his first outing at hooker for South Africa this year, and replacement Mtawarira. Bakkies Botha had departed and behind the untested front-row were two lanky jumpers (Andries Bekker and Victor Matfield) rather than pushers.

According to prop forward lore, it should have been a disaster, but this revamped pack suddenly started shunting the Italians around the park and, for the first time on tour, the Boks were outscrumming their opponents.

Only those who were in the front-row on Saturday will know precisely what happened; whether it was Botha as a specialist tighthead who made the difference, or the strong scrummaging of Smit at hooker, or the fired-up Beast, or the combination of all three against a tiring Italian pack.

But already the parrot-cry has gone out for Smit to return from tighthead to his old position at hooker — where he did look entirely at home — and for the Boks to start with the Botha, Smit, Mtawarira front-row against Ireland.

However, waiting on the sidelines, and fit to face Ireland (according to De Villiers) is Bismarck du Plessis. The Sharks hooker is described by Smit in his autobiography as “a physical freak who is going to grow into one of the greatest front-row forwards the world has seen”.

Smit only moved to tighthead at the request of his coaches to accommodate the young Du Plessis, and De Villiers now has to decide whether he is going to change tack for the last Test of the year. Critically, though, the final quarter against a strong Italian scrum may have provided the Boks with answers to where they have been going wrong for most of the year.

De Villiers yesterday suggested that he may well start with Smit at hooker against Ireland, with Du Plessis playing off the bench now that he has the option provided by the pre­sence of two tighthead props, B.J. Botha and C.J. van der Linde, in the squad.

“Maybe this Saturday I’ll use John [Smit] and Bismarck [du Plessis] as hookers against Ireland,” De Villiers told the media.

“It’s a nice problem to have … but I will have to make some important decisions in this regard.”

Both De Villiers and Smit said they were far happier after the Italian Test than they were before it.

De Villiers said he had been worried about his scrum against the Italians.

“I think the last 20 minutes instilled that kind of confidence (in the scrum) that we tried to give the players in practice.”

Smit felt his team-mates had rebounded well from their France defeat.

“We lost our first game against a good French side when we played below our potential. We stuck to things that worked for us in the past against Italy and it ended up becoming a good result for us.”

Italian coach Nick Mallett praised the character of his players but said that the Boks had the better kicking game, both at goal and out of hand. But his team also paid a heavy price for their many errors and in not chasing many of their high kicks.

More Springboks, page 20.

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