Coenie needs Bok start soon

Coenie Oosthuizen (Gallo)
Coenie Oosthuizen (Gallo)
Cape Town – Considering that he has been such a yeoman servant for several years, who would wish to deprive Jannie du Plessis of the opportunity to get to his 50th-cap landmark as quickly and seamlessly as possible?

Certainly not Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, who duly named the Sharks anchorman at tighthead prop in his team to play the Wallabies in the Castle Rugby Championship at Newlands here on Saturday (17:00 kick-off).

Du Plessis is a virtual ever-present for South Africa these days, and clearly Meyer anticipates the broad-shouldered doctor rising particularly to the challenge of reaching his half-century milestone in Test appearances, after making his debut against the very same Aussies at Sydney in July 2007 - it seems an eternity ago, as evidenced by the fact that his starting front-row colleagues in a game surrendered 25-17 were CJ van der Linde and long-out-of-favour Gary Botha.

The 30-year-old No 3 was below his best in the Boks’ controversial 29-15 reverse to the All Blacks at Eden Park a fortnight ago, when younger brother Bismarck was red-carded, and there were murmurs in some circles that perhaps the time had come for a start for burly Cheetahs utility prop Coenie Oosthuizen.

But with Du Plessis sitting on a tantalising 49 caps, coupled with the likelihood that the labouring Wallabies will restore nuggety Benn Robinson to their loosehead prop role, smart money was probably always on Meyer continuing his staunch faith in the man from Bethlehem at Newlands - he almost certainly remains the premier force in his specific position in the country at scrum time.

The Bok mastermind admitted to Sport24 on Wednesday, at the team announcement, that Du Plessis experienced “one or two lapses” in his play in Auckland, when his bread-and-butter task of scrummaging mostly maintained high standards but a couple of his key tackles were executed poorly and proved fairly costly to the cause.

But Meyer also quickly qualified his statement: “The (mistakes) weren’t really his fault with guys shooting out of defensive line outside of him, and with due respect if you look at world rugby you can’t always expect a prop to defend the best stepping backs in the game - even with backs on backs, it can be difficult to defend in such circumstances.

“If you look at pure stats, every week Jannie is up there for most cleans or close to most tackles, and he actually does a helluva lot of work around the park for a tighthead. He’s been playing great rugby, but to his own high standards maybe the last game wasn’t his best.

“It was more a team effort that let the system down on defence.

“The main area you want from a tighthead is to scrum, and it’s something I’m very happy with; we’ve made a huge (collective) improvement from last year and Jannie must get a lot of credit for that.”

All that said, sooner or later Meyer may have to bite the bullet and give more meaningful exposure to an understudy at tighthead, which would not only afford hard-pressed Du Plessis a welcome break but also provide that deputy - Oosthuizen seems to be being groomed as next in line - with a taste of more than just an impact role off the bench.

After all, the Bok coach has made it clear he wants to assemble as much gnarly experience as possible right across the positional ranks ahead of the 2015 World Cup in England.

A glance at the SA tight forward arsenal assembled for Saturday’s Wallaby challenge largely suggests decent depth is being cultivated: the starting tight five boasts a collective 173 appearances, whilst most of the back-up spots in the boiler room are occupied by anything but callow characters.  

Reserve hooker for the day Bismarck du Plessis already has 52 caps, substitute loosehead Gurthro Steenkamp owns 44, and current next-in-line lock Juandre Kruger is also amassing more and more street wisdom at this level - the vast majority of his 15 caps have been as a starter.

But the glaring exception is in the back-up tighthead slot, where Oosthuizen will only enter double figures for appearances in this Test match, and is overwhelmingly a “20-minutes man” at this stage of his international career.

It is far easier to excel in late bursts of activity - fresh as the proverbial daisy when many other legs on the pitch are tiring - and we still don’t really know whether the beefy Free Stater would cut it at No 3 for the duration (or at least very nearly that) of a Test.

Meyer said on Wednesday: “I know there was criticism when I started using him as a tighthead, but I really think he (Oosthuizen) has been awesome when coming on - yes, that is a bit different, and he’s a great impact player.

“But it is also part of our long-term plan to build him up; give him as much game-time there as possible.

“It is just a matter of time before he will get starts, especially keeping in mind that Jannie played just about every game of rugby last year, some 36 games, and there is still quite a long road ahead to the next World Cup.

“But it is great having Coenie make the big step up, and hopefully he can just get more rugby at tighthead. It takes time for a tighthead to develop but I am very happy with where (he is at).”

The end-of-year tour, considering that it will be played in environments closely emulating England RWC 2015 conditions, may be the very necessary, taxing opportunity for Oosthuizen to be thrown to the northern-clime wolves at some point for a much fuller 70 or 80 minutes ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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