Cape Town – In the countdown to Saturday’s Castle Rugby Championship clash in Albany, it is educative to examine the hallmarks of the Springbok backline back in September 2009, the last time they beat the All Blacks on their soil to confirm deserved rights to the old Tri-Nations title that year.
Not only did South Africa, en route to a tense 32-29 triumph in Hamilton, fight fire with fire in the forward battle – courtesy of such gnarly characters as Bakkies Botha, Bismarck du Plessis and Schalk Burger – but they countered their hosts pretty much kilogram for kilogram (and in suitable height terms, too) in the back division.
The All Blacks of that time, and as has been customary for them throughout the full professional era, possessed some uniquely powerful, explosive resources behind the scrum; probably their biggest units then were Joe Rokocoko, Ma’a Nonu, Mils Muliaina and Sitiveni Sivivatu.
But the Boks weren’t ever going to be notably cowed in taking them on, featuring as they did in their own backline vital, strapping counters like Frans Steyn in the fullback position – he imposed himself on that decisive contest in a number of ways, including through his monster boot – and a solid in all respects midfield alliance of Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie.
Fourie, let’s not forget, was a 1.90m, 105kg specimen who was a valuable “organiser” of the Bok defence when danger lurked imminently. He naturally had a good view of play considering his blessings in tallness and would frantically beckon personnel through animated hand signals to whichever area of the park he believed was necessary to police in a hurry.
That amazingly cerebral figure Fourie du Preez, too, was not the smallest of men you’d ever witness in the scrumhalf position.
Whilst direct comparisons can be odious – especially eight years onward – I would argue that the main characteristic of the Bok starting backline named by coach Allister Coetzee on Thursday (even if pretty much as expected in composition) is its unusual, possibly key concession of both height and muscle to a rival New Zealand seven.
It is not as though the All Blacks are reluctant to field “smaller guys” … they aren’t, and it is reflected in the selections of Damian McKenzie at fullback, and a halfback pairing of Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett that is far more about guile and stealth than brawn.
But what the New Zealanders always do shrewdly is have their pocket dynamos, if you like, play cleverly off the nearby more robust factors who they ensure provide balance to their plans.
But in that regard, the Boks do not benefit from any noteworthy muscle-men of their own, a situation only aggravated, potentially, by the relative brittleness both in physique and broad playing terms recently of a back three comprising Andries Coetzee and two nippy light- to middleweights at wing in Courtnall Skosan and Raymond Rhule.
So the Boks will be stretched to the limits in containing the imposing likes of Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty and Rieko Ioane, which may well offer twinkle-toed McKenzie and others the opportunity to make progress in other ways and perhaps in generous space facilitated by uncompromising spadework closer in.
Particularly in midfield, where that occasional heavyweight pugilist “SBW” and Crotty (who makes a habit of scoring often strength-engineered tries against South African foes in Super Rugby) go into combat with Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel respectively, the gutsy but generally less physically blessed visiting pair will have to be on high alert and ready to put their bodies right on the line.
Williams tips the scales at almost 110kg and Crotty around 96kg, though the latter somehow seems even stockier than that when perusing his playing style, which combines sound awareness and skill with an effective “knock ‘em backwards” penchant.
Meanwhile in the wider areas on Saturday, the Boks offer no meaningful counter on a tale-of-the-tape basis to Ioane, the explosive 102kg youngster on the All Black left wing who already sports six tries from as many Test appearances – and only four of those starts.
I am certainly not alone in fretting over the collective physical limitations of the Springbok backline of 2017, even if those reservations should not be recklessly interpreted as some sort of railing against smaller rugby players.
There is a place for them, and sometimes good ones get ill-advisedly overlooked, too.
Yet collision and confrontation remains a massive part of modern rugby, like it or not, and as much as the All Blacks are capable of silky, “charm offensive” attacking raids, they also make major gains with more direct, earthy tactics.
The packs ought to be closely-matched in the bone-crunching department, particularly with Jean-Luc du Preez -- replacing injured Jaco Kriel -- now giving them a more classical, barnstorming presence at blindside flank.
But don’t believe for a second that Steve Hansen and company haven’t noticed the pretty rare lack of any genuine physical oomph on paper throughout this Bok backline …
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