Cape Town – If it could work so dreamily well one Saturday, why not repeat the prescription the next?
That was probably the logic Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer strongly employed as he named a largely unchanged match-day squad mix on Wednesday for their closing Castle Rugby Championship fixture against the All Blacks at Ellis Park on Saturday.
A key feature -- the only intended alteration to the run-out XV at this stage being tough nut Bismarck du Plessis back at hooker ahead of Adriaan Strauss -- is the oomph the Boks will hope to inject off the bench again, both from some gnarly old warriors and ambitious young customers.
Just about the entire arsenal of Bok substitutes put a crucial stamp on the initially see-sawing game against resilient Australia at Newlands, producing a freshness or verve – in several cases both – that finally knocked the wind conclusively from Wallaby sails.
Even if they will initially gather “splinters” again, players like Pat Lambie, Cobus Reinach, JP Pietersen, Schalk Burger (earmarked as starting No 8 if Duane Vermeulen doesn’t recover from his rib injury in time) and Bakkies Botha are sure to be champing at the bit for lively second-half cameos against the world’s top-ranked nation and South Africa’s fiercest historical foes.
Particularly gratifying for Meyer, as he desperately seeks to break his five-game run of defeats to the All Blacks, will be his own knowledge that his starters will be all too aware that any signs of flagging or an increased personal error count ... and they could well be off the pitch in a flash.
Substitutions have a fairly common theme in Tests these days: first to go, around the 55 to 60-minute mark unless injuries or significant scoreboard angst have dictated earlier changes, are likely to be the first-choice tighthead prop and often simultaneously the earthier, less fleet-footed of the locks, usually the wearer of the No 4 jersey.
So you shouldn’t see too mortified a look on the face of Jannie du Plessis, for example, if the overworked front-ranker marks the start of switches to the mix in the unforgiving Highveld atmosphere and Marcel van der Merwe gets another chance (it would the Bulls player’s sixth cap at this level) to demonstrate the effectiveness of his right shoulder in the scrums and open-play industry.
That said, isn’t it perhaps time, too, that a much fitter and better-focused Trevor Nyakane get a slightly more prolonged crack on the loosehead side of the scrum, where Tendai Mtawarira continues to be more “satisfactory” than the thunderous force he was of three or four years ago?
One standout characteristic of the memorable Cape Town Test last weekend was that in certain instances even strongly-performing players were subbed, and then the replacement would look no less effervescent or constructive.
A classic case in point is Francois Hougaard who, in his 31st appearance for the Boks, came increasingly into his own at scrumhalf after an indecisive first few minutes.
He put in a fabulously full-blooded shift on defence, as much as anything else, so there was no disgrace or shock in the No 9 coming off in the 77th minute.
Of course immediately afterwards, debutant Cobus Reinach proceeded even in the space of his mere three minutes or so of activity to break swiftly and decisively on two separate occasions, so the temptation to see him perform in a slightly longer stint than that may be strong in Meyer’s mind.
Similarly, the gradually developing Handre Pollard in the flyhalf channel will be only too aware that Lambie injected a precious amount of welcome X-factor when he was awarded 21 minutes to show his stripes against the Aussies, so the 20-year-old is under pressure to stamp his authority in the manner he did recently in the Wellington first-round meeting with NZ.
As for the decision to return Du Plessis to the starting berth at hooker, obviously Strauss will have reason to feel just a little bemused that he has been overlooked; for what it is worth, the blond dynamo scored a very solid 7/10 on the Sport24 card against the Wallabies.
But he is an admirable squad man, and may realise deep down that the special adversarial qualities of the Sharks captain were always likely to be summoned from the outset against the All Blacks.
Early “markers” can be game-tilters in games like this and the Battleship Bismarck will already be polishing his guns, as it were, to get stuck into this particular enemy as swiftly as possible.
That said, Du Plessis cannot afford to be errant at his basics like lineout throwing where, if anything, Strauss has been the more assured element in recent weeks ...
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