Cape Town – Prospects have improved, it seems, for an engrossing duel on Saturday between the likely premier World Cup 2015 lock pairings of both the Springboks and All Blacks.
If it occurs in the tournament-ending Castle Rugby Championship game at Ellis Park on Saturday (17:05 kickoff), it will be the first time that all of Victor Matfield and Eben Etzebeth (South Africa) and the visitors’ Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick have started the same Test match.
It would thus also become the maiden head-to-head between the respective second rows for bragging rights as, arguably, the planet’s best combo.
The potential spanner in the works after last weekend’s duo of Championship matches was All Black enforcer Retallick picking up a head knock early in the second half of their title-deciding victory over Argentina in La Plata, and having to quit the park.
But if reports in the New Zealand media on Tuesday are to be believed, he is not showing significant symptoms of concussion and may get the nod to take his place against the Boks in Johannesburg.
The mean-faced 23-year-old is probably the most consistently in-form lock in Test rugby this year, and it would take some of the edge off the contest – already not relevant in terms of the destiny of the silverware – if he were to be ruled out.
It would also mean that once again in 2014 the New Zealanders tackle the old enemy without one of their first-choice men in the second row: Retallick’s agile ally Whitelock missed the Wellington first-round meeting recently (the All Blacks edged it 14-10) with a rib injury.
Instead Matfield and Etzebeth – starting to gel nicely despite the unusual 15-year age divide between them – came up against Retallick and Super Rugby stalwart but far from Test regular Jeremy Thrush.
The last-named player gave a decent account of himself then but connoisseurs, with respect, will be licking their lips at the likelihood of the “big four” locking horns at last this weekend.
Serious veteran Matfield, who was particularly impressive in the Boks’ 28-10 triumph over the Wallabies last Saturday, has not played a home Test against the All Blacks since 2011, in the last version of the old Tri-Nations before the World Cup that year.
He was in alliance with old mate Bakkies Botha, against Whitelock and Ali Williams, as South Africa won 18-5 in Port Elizabeth – also the last time the Boks have won against these foes.
Whitelock’s first experience of starting against the Springboks had come in the NZ-staged contest that year, when Peter de Villiers controversially put out a “second team” and the All Blacks romped to a 40-7 result in their favour.
The Bok locks on that occasion were Gerhard Mostert and Alistair Hargreaves, both right out of the Bok loop these days and plying their trade for clubs in France and England respectively.
If we do get the top-tier lock contest this Saturday, the Bok pair will eclipse their visiting rivals by 144 caps (mostly thanks to Matfield’s record 116) to 90 ... Whitelock sporting 58 of those and Retallick 32.
Expect Matfield and Whitelock to fight a battle royale for
command of the skies via the lineout and kick-offs aspects of the Test, whilst
Etzebeth and Retallick – neither man a shrinking violet – will grapple for
bragging rights in the more physical departments.
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