Bok No 5 shirt: It stays a dogfight

Lood de Jager (Gallo)
Lood de Jager (Gallo)

Cape Town - When a certain Victor Matfield was in his heyday, the Springbok No 5 jersey just seemed his sole preserve.

After all, who’d have wanted to be a rival, middle-of-lineout lock forward for the bulk of spring-heeled Big Vic’s roughly 16-year - not to mention record 127-cap - Test career?

In more recent seasons, the second-row situation has more or less reversed: Eben Etzebeth hogs the No 4 shirt, not only because of his impressive mastery of the “enforcer” slot but also because, of late, he is also locked in as the acting Bok captain.

It says so much about the confidence the brains trust have in his status - both playing level and in developing leadership - that no other out-and-out No 4 lock was named in the squad for the end-of-year tour, which begins against Ireland in Dublin on Saturday (19:30 SA time).

By contrast, there are effectively as many as four primarily No 5-geared players in the party: Pieter-Steph du Toit, Lood de Jager and Franco Mostert, plus late, maiden call-up Ruan Botha from the Sharks.

That said, both Du Toit (2m, 118kg) and De Jager (2.06m, 122kg) have the necessary physical dimensions and instinctive grunt to cover at the “front” and the latter, especially, has previously more than confirmed his adaptability to the other lock berth.

The slightly lighter Mostert is a more roaming presence, in many respects, who specialises a lot more at five and usually works his socks off in the role.

Botha? Well, he’s also a strapping and uncompromising unit, but similarly much more acquainted in recent first-class seasons with duty in the middle role and, at this stage, more likely to be in the squad for educative future purposes anyway.

As the Boks prepare to go into the first of their four Tests on Saturday, the contest for the No 5 berth looks as positively head-scratching as it has been for some time, and it is an especially fascinating, still three-way conundrum if head coach Allister Coetzee - who names his side for the Aviva Stadium clash on Thursday - decides that Du Toit is best left to scrap out a second-row position.

A personal suspicion is that that won’t occur: my money (though I don’t consider it the safest of bets, it must be said) is on Coetzee sticking to the loose trio which, despite certain imbalances in positional know-how, put up a yeoman fight in the narrowly surrendered thriller against the All Blacks at Newlands last time out: Siya Kolisi at open-side flank, Du Toit the seven and Francois Louw continuing his international learning curve as a stand-in eighth-man.

Du Toit gave some thunderous go-forward, especially with his repeated pick-and-go initiatives, in that Rugby Championship encounter, arguably putting beyond doubt that, despite some earlier hiccups in the berth, he is indeed convertible to the side of the scrum - and heavier northern-hemisphere surfaces only add to that appeal, you would think.

But should the Boks opt for someone else at No 7 (Uzair Cassiem? Oupa Mohoje? Dan du Preez?) then Du Toit stays a very forceful candidate for the No 5 chore in a dice with both De Jager and Mostert ... whoever wins the then three-way race to start the Ireland tussle does so by a relative whisker, as has become pretty usual.

Remember that Du Toit has in his favour the fact that he shares second-row duty with Etzebeth for the Stormers, although the current Bok skipper has also combined seamlessly with both De Jager – their little Newlands Super Rugby dust-up of last year seemingly well consigned to history - and Mostert under Coetzee’s tenure as head coach.

De Jager might be said to be a fraction ahead of Mostert in the current pecking order, given his bright, tackle-conscious display at five against New Zealand so recently; he stayed on the park in Cape Town for some 55 minutes before Mostert - always a pleasing bench option, it must be said - added his reliable bit in impact.

The tall-timber Bulls representative also has a pleasing little habit of excelling in European conditions, when you consider his massively industrious contribution to the 2015 World Cup (ageing Matfield walked a tightrope with a hamstring issue more or less throughout it) which even earned De Jager the nod by some UK pundits for their own, imaginary team of the tournament.

My own wish for Saturday would be for Du Toit to continue at blind-side flank, with De Jager similarly remaining Etzebeth’s companion in the heart of the boiler room.

My cautious tip is that Coetzee also sees things that way ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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