Is Rassie planning to 'Brussow' the All Blacks?

Rassie Erasmus (Getty)
Rassie Erasmus (Getty)

Cape Town - It is still the most fruitful period of consecutive, post-isolation victories for the Springboks over arch-enemies the All Blacks … in an era otherwise marked by clear-cut New Zealand dominance.

A decade ago in 2009, coinciding with the last time they claimed the former Tri-Nations title, the John Smit-led national side won all three bilateral contests between the sides: three on the trot over NZ had last occurred for South Africa in a period spanning two series, split between 1970 and 1976.

But there was one especially standout, common denominator in that brief but memorable period of mastery during the Peter de Villiers tenure as head coach: Heinrich Brussow.

The orthodox, speedy and low-centre-of-gravity openside flanker was a routine nemesis to the All Blacks - despite their own fielding of a certain, legendary Richie McCaw in that capacity - in that Tri-Nations.

Brussow started all three Tests in the No 6 jersey for the Boks, his extreme nuisance value at the breakdown and mobility and awareness in open exchanges playing no small part in the “hat-trick”: 28-19 in his then home-base Bloemfontein, 31-19 in Durban, and then the pivotal 32-29 triumph in Hamilton to seal the subsequently so elusive (later named the Rugby Championship) silverware.

Now a nearly 33-year-old veteran on Northampton’s books in England, Brussow - at least partly as a result of injury-hit spells - has faded from the Bok picture in more recent years, playing his last Test against Argentina (Buenos Aires) in 2015.

Since then, incumbent Bok coach Rassie Erasmus - and his predecessor Allister Coetzee - have generally adopted a policy of favouring brawnier, taller ball-carriers in the “fetcher” capacity like Siya Kolisi and Francois Louw, effectively asking them to be as multi-dimensional as possible.

Bear in mind that the Boks expect extra input as pilferers over the ball from, among others, hooker Malcolm Marx and No 8 Duane Vermeulen, both of whom are very good at it.

Still, there is an element of strategic surprise if, as weekend reports suggest, Erasmus rather suddenly earmarks Lions marauder Kwagga Smith for open-side duty against New Zealand in just under a fortnight, seemingly sending him ahead with around 14 others for that Wellington tussle rather than deploy him in the Rugby Championship opener against Australia in Johannesburg on Saturday.

Bear in mind, of course, that these are clearly liberal times for experimentation, considering the bigger matter of RWC 2019 further up the line.

But is Erasmus toying, nevertheless, with a slight change of heart when it comes to his style of player at No 6?

Former Sevens charger Smith, 26, is a more old-fashioned beast, if you like, in that slot with his modest 1.82m height (Brussow is 1.80m) and only some 94kg (Brussow apparently comes in at about 100kg) … so there is not a lot in it between them in tale-of-the-tape terms, and both pride themselves in nippiness and linking ability around the park.

He has not featured again for the Boks since his debut, also under predominantly “trial” circumstances, when a heavily diluted Bok side lost Erasmus’s first match in charge to Wales – a controversial addition to the Test roster, just before the June home series against England, in Washington DC last year.

Smith was relatively anonymous in slippery conditions then, and he is perhaps at his best on firmer pitches and in fluid, end-to-end matches - often the case in Super Rugby, where some New Zealand organs had him as a relatively rare South African figure in their “team of the season” in that competition earlier this year.

He does have a great nose for the try-line, especially as he is so often near the ball whenever teams he is representing are near the enemy chalk; the player is not averse to the occasional, swift tap-and-go with the opposition defence not yet properly organised.

Whether he actually starts the Test at the Cake Tin (he can also be considered for No 8 duty) in less than a fortnight could well be dependant on whether it is dry and benign rather than wet and blowing one of Wellington’s infamous gales.

But if veteran observers in the Land of the Long White Cloud do see Albertus Stephanus Smith earmarked to play a meaningful role in the clash, they may well simultaneously turn their thoughts back, and with some level of discomfort, to the “Year of the Brussow” in 2009 ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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