Cape Town – It is probably still the area of closest and highest-quality rivalry in the Springbok team.
Steven Kitshoff v Tendai Mtawarira at loosehead prop: the stuff of dreams for most international coaches, and a major head-scratcher for the Boks’ own Rassie Erasmus.
Almost every Test match in 2018 so far has seen consistent excellence in the role … regardless of which one has had the now fairly standard 55 to 60 minutes up front, followed by a final quarter or so of continued urgency and intensity coming from the substitute.
This pair have created a pleasant predicament, though one that summons Erasmus’s best “management” skills in keeping each man as happy as possible.
There is a case for saying that the incumbent is handling the special level of loose-head competitiveness in the Test squad better than predecessor Allister Coetzee.
That is because Erasmus – despite only eight games in charge at this point - has already rewarded the younger Kitshoff with two starts, the consecutive and most recent Rugby Championship matches against Australia in Brisbane (loss) and New Zealand in Wellington (famous win).
Under Coetzee’s two-year tenure, the now 33-year-old “Beast” was far more routinely the starting player in the berth: Kitshoff only got two starts in 23 matches.
At times, and although you could sympathise with Coetzee if he held this view, it almost felt as though the barrelling Stormers-based customer was somehow being penalised for being so genuinely impactful off the bench; a true “supersub”.
That was even during a noticeable period where Sharks favourite Mtawarira went off the boil and was a little fortunate to remain the first choice at times.
This year, however, both have generally performed like men possessed, raising their personal games admirably as the 2019 World Cup looms ever larger – now less than a year from starting.
Their scrummaging has been sturdy (and then some, occasionally) and ball-carrying and tackling also ticking the boxes comfortably.
So has Kitshoff, 26, now effectively overtaken his great rival to the No 1 jersey?
Erasmus’s selection on Thursday for the Port Elizabeth date with Australia should be a significant indicator, if he persists with the flame-haired incumbent as the upfront factor for a third Test in a row.
I just fancy that a likelier scenario – and even despite Kitshoff’s thunderous game in the Cake Tin, where he got into All Black faces with gusto – is Mtawarira earning a rotational recall, if you like, to the start-out XV.
It makes a great amount of sense, after all, to keep both as sharp and motivated as possible, and the Bok brains trust could argue with some credibility that swapping them around for Saturday’s tussle with the Wallabies at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium is simply a tactical move in longer-term interest.
Certainly a fierce, positive “response” from Mtawarira would be expected, while Kitshoff being curtailed to second-half game time off the bench in the Friendly City would also prime him quite nicely, in physical terms, should the intention be for him to begin the Loftus follow-up crunch against the smarting New Zealanders.
This weekend, too, there will almost certainly be heavier pressure on the national coach to boost his transformation tallies – he began the Wellington Test with only four players of colour in the starting side, as opposed to six a week earlier in Brisbane.
Erasmus is hamstrung on that front by the unavailability for the PE Test of both starting centres from the Cake Tin clash, Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am, although S’bu Nkosi counter-balances that drawback by being fit for a highly likely recall to the right wing berth.
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