Prop trickery or stupidity?

Sport24 columnist Tank Lanning (File)
Sport24 columnist Tank Lanning (File)

So after just one scrum against the Bulls at Loftus last Saturday, and as early as the 32nd minute, the Cheetahs changed both props.

And my oath, did it make a difference.

Mangled in that first scrum, starting props Ox Nche and Johan Coetzee were duly given the Shepherd’s hook before half time, and forced to look on as replacement props Charles Marais and Maks van Dyk used the Bulls pack to plough the once pristine Loftus grass.

The turnaround was instant. So much so that I hope Bulls props Trevor Nyakane and Marcel van der Merwe were clever enough to organise a little “Dentist appointment” at the same time as Monday’s video session. In fact, even a real root canal treatment might have been more fun than having to go through that video.

And I found it quite interesting to see Cheetahs coach Franco Smith picking up a few plaudits from the SuperSport commentators for this “genius and brave” substitution.

Especially as I had just tweeted something to the effect of: “Cheetahs sub their props after 30 minutes. Nothing like a public omission of a selection cock up of note” …

Which I still believe to be the case, but an interesting school of thought was put to me on Twitter after the game. Namely that it makes sense to play your weaker front row in the early part of the game as there are generally fewer scrums as both sides feel each other out.

Now try as I might, I could not find a stat to back that up. But even if it were the case, I still see it as a fairly risky strategy. What happens if you receive the kick in from the kick off and your wing knocks the ball on five metres from his own tryline? Defensive scrum on your own line and you have your second string front row on patrol. Not for me, thanks.

You might not be able to win a game in the first 20 minutes, but you can definitely lose it.

I loved this from former Wallaby great, Mark Ella, writing for The Australian: “As a former playmaker I can tell you how much easier it is playing the game on the front foot rather than constantly moving backwards in attack. You cannot play rugby going backwards. There is an old saying in rugby: If the front-row folds, the whole team folds.”

From a peacock back!

Given that you can sub your front row at any time, perhaps there is some merit to starting your second string props, but what message does that send to them as people, and the team as a whole?

Also, given how easy it is to manipulate a scenario that sees your starting front row able to come back onto the park because of an “injury”, surely if trying to manipulate the system, start your main guys, give them a breather, then get them back on for the final ten minutes? Get that right, and then I will call you a genius. A very sneaky, cheating, genius though.

Nope, old school is cool here. Daan Human has done a great job with this Cheetahs scrum. Charles Marais is the form loosehead in SA right now. Maks van Dyk is right up there with the best tightheads in SA. Start them.

Rather than pulling a rabbit out the hat, I think Franco Smith erred.

Tank Lanning is a former Western Province prop and vociferous tweeter from @frontrowgrunt.

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.
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