Bakkies to front of Bok queue?

Bakkies Botha (Gallo Images)
Bakkies Botha (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – The unexpected injury to his long-time second row ally Victor Matfield may well have had the effect of only enhancing the prospects of Bakkies Botha starting the Castle Rugby Championship Test for South Africa against Argentina on Saturday week.

The tournament opener for the Springboks fittingly takes place at Loftus, where Botha was a senior, trophy-winning figure for many years before his late-career move to Toulon.

Of course Botha would not play, if he does crack coach Heyneke Meyer’s nod against the Pumas, as a like-for-like replacement for his “Blood Brothers” partner: he is never going to perform the No 5 role the supreme athlete Matfield has got down to such a fine art.

But with the massive experience of Matfield now stripped from Bok plans in Pretoria – and possibly even a fair bit beyond that – Botha may indirectly benefit from the setback by his own, key street-wisdom coming more forcefully into consideration for the starting XV in the No 4 shirt.

When the 30-strong squad was revealed by Meyer recently, there was a nice balance to the quartet of locks, with the old Bulls and Bok World Cup 2007-winning firm of Matfield and Botha joined by the hugely exciting Young Turks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager.

Smart money, before his inconvenient knee problem came to light, was probably the 113-cap Matfield being joined by one of Etzebeth (depending on his rehabilitation progress from long-term injury) or De Jager in the likely match-day mix against the Argentineans.

It is unlikely that Meyer would have braved possible accusations of “old-crock obsession” by bypassing both of the gifted younger second-rowers to restore a Botha-Matfield combo: that would give the lock pairing a counter-productive average age of around 36, bearing in mind that the former turns 35 on September 22 and Matfield is already 37.

The veterans did start the first Test together against Wales (won 38-16) in Durban in early June, but that was when Etzebeth was still not available on medical grounds and De Jager had not yet burst onto the scene in the manner he did so impressively later in the “window” period that month.

But Matfield’s injury put a spanner in the works: it is just possible that Botha has now, in Meyer’s mind, leapt from least likely starting pick of the quartet to comforting main banker at lock for the Championship opener.

It still leaves the significant problem of what to do at five, where one of Etzebeth or De Jager may be required to have a crack slightly out of normal, front-end habitat (the belated call-up of versatile combatant Juan Smith offers dark-horse possibilities for the berth, too).

Yet fitting hard man Botha in – he should be appealingly fresh after a Super Rugby-free period in recent weeks -- not only gives Meyer the comfort of knowing he’d be fielding someone with intimate knowledge of Bok systems, but the kind of position-specific leadership to guide a more fresh-faced partner if it comes to that.

The French-based player is a renowned strong scrummager, into the bargain: not the worst asset to have against the Pumas, who always fancy a healthy stab at set-piece mastery even if the legend of the “bajada” has subsided somewhat in more recent years.

Unless the game-shy Etzebeth has an absolutely monster first-class comeback showing for Western Province against the EP Kings in Port Elizabeth on Friday night, a starting partnership of Botha at four and De Jager five appears to make the most sense under current circumstances for Loftus.

It would be Botha’s 80th Test, and his fifth deployment against Argentina.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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