Cape Town – The enormous experience and home wisdom of Greig Laidlaw against the raw, slippery talent of Embrose Papier on his maiden start.
How that battle pans out in the key, conduit position of scrumhalf will have an important bearing on the outcome of Saturday’s hazardous-to-call Murrayfield clash between Scotland and South Africa (19:20 SA time).
Here is my broader selection of four individual tussles that should get the juices flowing at the famous Edinburgh venue …
Jesse Kriel v Huw Jones
Which Huw Jones will rock up on Saturday? The one who was so dynamic as an attacking weapon in Western Province’s Currie Cup-winning season last year – he so often ran refreshing, scintillating lines -- or the one who has more recently fallen prey to some domestic scrutiny, apparently, around his defensive stoutness? Edinburgh-born but UCT-educated, he had been so compelling for John Dobson’s WP team in 2017 that many rued his non-availability for SA. But instead he earns an 18th cap here for the Scots, and runs into Kriel, who is capable of policing him competently at outside centre. Still, the Bulls man can be prone to ignoring (or just not being properly aware of) peripheral opportunities around him when on the front foot himself, and both he and midfield colleague Damian de Allende are under increasing pressure to make sure the potent Bok back three get routinely enough into the game.
Embrose Papier v Greig Laidlaw
It is a statistical no-contest, really … although fortunately for the Boks, Test matches aren’t automatically won or lost on those grounds. Still, expect infinitely greater “butterflies” upfront from Papier, making his debut as a starting presence, against the wily Scottish captain who will earn a 65th cap and fifth simply against SA. He is a typically street-wise northern hemisphere character in the No 9 spot, managing games astutely and knowing how to response to whatever conditions present themselves. A certain Fourie du Preez, a cerebral genius all of his own, was his direct foe that last times the teams met, at Newcastle in RWC 2015. In greenhorn Papier’s favour, an unusually dry and benign evening is anticipated, which should help his effervescent, sniping-geared game (hopefully he won’t be under TOO much pressure to perpetually bang up box-kicks?). There is also the knowledge that Laidlaw, 33, has not yet knocked over the Boks … he is nought from four against them. Twelve years Laidlaw’s junior, one concern for Papier-watchers will be how few starts the Bok scrumhalf has had at any level of the game in recent times … but an hour or so might be enough to confirm his potential.
Franco Mostert v Jonny Gray
Gray, the 24-year-old Glaswegian, was also at No 5 for the Scots in that World Cup group clash where Heyneke Meyer’s charges won by a comfortable 34-16 margin. His direct opponent then was Lood de Jager – in excellent international form at the time – although here the lanky South African is confined to the bench. Instead Gray goes into head-to-head battle for the first time with Mostert, whose 28th cap will also be his first against these particular foes. Their physical proportions are pretty similar, and Gray should get to see for himself the German car-like reliability of the engine that keeps his rival grafting ceaselessly. The Bok lineout functioned noticeably better against France last weekend – with “Sous” back calling the throw-ins – than it had at Twickenham a week earlier; somehow his former Lions ally has a settling effect on hooker Malcolm Marx’s accuracy at that particular set-piece. But Gray will aim be a key disrupter. Like Laidlaw, he has also not yet tasted victory over the Boks, from three prior stabs at it.
Steven Kitshoff v WP Nel
You might say that it is Boland against Namaqualand on this side of the front-row scrummaging tussle on Saturday. Kitshoff did his schooling in Stellenbosch, while Scottish tighthead Nel – despite his more prominent days on the Cheetahs’ books while still SA-based – hails from the less than bright lights of a town decidedly with no “Mac” in it: Loeriesfontein. Just a little off his liveliest in general play on the tour so far (a sign of end-of-year fatigue taking root?), Bok loosehead Kitshoff has been solid enough at the set-piece and will know from domestic experience what to expect from fairly low-centre-of-gravity Nel in the home side’s No 3 jersey. The adopted Scot – both his children were born there – differs substantially from Kitshoff in terms of having had to wrestle several major injury woes (including neck) since his relocation, even if he seems back to best fitness. The flame-haired South African has tended to be blissfully injury-free in his career thus far. Another point of interest in this scrap is that Kitshoff plays his pro rugby at Newlands, where Nel once lost a contract …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing