Boks: Keep subs’ limbs loose, Allister!

Steven Kitshoff (Gallo Images)
Steven Kitshoff (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Hopefully Allister Coetzee will be primed to give “decorum” over the use of his Springbok bench a reasonably wide berth if necessary against Ireland on Saturday.

Generally, it is still seen by onlookers as something not far off humiliation if a starting player, not impeded by injury, is yanked off before, say, the 45-minute mark, and it still doesn’t happen too often in Test matches.

The more traditional “avalanche” of changes, if you like, tends to come on the hour or thereabouts as some legs and lungs recede in their effectiveness at the outset of the key final quarter.

Substitutions during the first half itself?

Not entirely unheard of: then-Bok coach Rudolf Straeuli once ruffled feathers, inevitably involving transformation-linked sensitivities as well, when he hauled off starting prop Lawrence Sephaka just before the half-hour point in a 2002 Test against New Zealand in Wellington.

It was clear that the admittedly struggling, then fairly rookie loose-head – replaced by Ollie le Roux – wasn’t crocked, and it was later explained as a “tactical” subbing; the Boks ended up crashing 41-20 anyway.

But the current Springboks, who revealed their match-day 23 for Saturday’s Aviva Stadium showdown on Thursday, are in a situation where several positions are unusually closely contested – a hallmark that is obviously healthy in some instances – and hotly debated.

Coetzee dropped few bombshells, considering the overall resources at his disposal on tour, with his selection, involving just three changes to his starting XV – one enforced by midfielder Jan Serfontein’s absence from the trip – from the line-up which put up such a plucky showing before being pipped by one point by the All Blacks at Newlands a month ago.

But there were some desperately close, contentious calls in some areas, and most notably at prop where changes are made on both sides of the boiler room.

Now there is a forceful case for saying that, on a day when the Bok pack did a lot more than just hold its own against the world champions in a widely-acclaimed thriller, the two props who most excelled for the home cause were Steven Kitshoff, finally earning his first start, and debutant sub Wilco Louw, who got a maiden cap in the 50th minute.

Yet neither starts in Dublin, and there is something just a little jarring about that.

Kitshoff was firm at scrum-time and thunderous in open play for a generous 78 minutes on that prior occasion, whilst Louw looked anything but overawed when he assumed the anchor-man role from penalty-prone (and now slipping on the pecking order) Ruan Dreyer at tighthead for the last half an hour of the breathless duel.

The WP strongman then also produced a gargantuan Currie Cup final, playing a major role with his set-piece power in the mildly upset triumph by the away team over the Sharks in Durban.

Still, at least for time being, and rightly or wrongly depending on your point of view, Coetzee has restored to his “first team” the two props who were unavailable at Newlands: veteran Tendai Mtawarira and Coenie Oosthuizen.

In his defence – and it isn’t a bad one, either – both the “Beast” and Big Coenie had previously been pulling their weight commendably in 2017, Mtawarira not taking noticeable backward steps in the scrums and Oosthuizen confirming that he is really learning the ropes much better now since his permanent conversion from loose-head to the tricky, demanding No 3 spot.

The last-named player will also come in handy in mauling initiatives and with his potential for rib-shaking hits on enemy ball-carriers, where he puts his 130kg frame to great use – an attribute especially handy on the slow pitches of Europe where close quarters is where so many games are won at.

All that said, Coetzee may wish to drum into his starting props that it will be no disgrace if they go more or less “fifty-fifty” on Saturday with the hungry young Kitshoff and Louw for game-time.

It would be particularly understandable if Oosthuizen got just the first half or only a fraction more, as he has not started a rugby match of any kind for more than two months since his broken-arm mishap in the Rugby Championship stalemate with Australia in Perth – in the interim, the equally strapping Louw has found possibly the form of his life.

Then again, both starting props knowing that there is such quality breathing down their necks from the “splinters” ought to also serve as extra motivation to put themselves about vigorously in whatever time they do eventually get against the combative, slight-favourite Irish.

Two others who will be feeling additional heat in Dublin, given the eagerness of Rudy Paige and Handre Pollard to enter the fray as subs, are the initial pairing at nine and ten of Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjies; the Lions duo are yet to persuade all observers that they are the longer-term real deal for the Boks in their critical berths.

Just for example, if the Boks happen to be under the cosh and the gifted but hard-to-predict Jantjies is struggling to impose himself, perhaps taking the ball too deep in the pocket and broadly having one of his “uncertain” days, coach Coetzee should not be shy to change up his battle-plan significantly and bring the more direct qualities of Pollard into operation with some swiftness and decisiveness.

This really could be one of those days where imaginative use of the entire 23, rather than just start-out 15, holds the key to a precious Bok triumph in their game-one toughie …

 *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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