Cape Town – Statistics don’t settle every argument in sport … often enough, they help.
On that basis, though including others, there is a case for submitting quite forcefully that the Springboks – traditionally so strong in this area – are taking their best group of locks yet to a World Cup this year.
For sheer collective quality of the quartet on paper who will go to Japan (Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Franco Mostert and RG Snyman), they take some beating historically.
Before the understandably large Victor Matfield-Bakkies Botha lobby gets too agitated, keep in mind that that is an observation based on the FULL cupboard of second-row resources at the tournament and not just a Bok “first-choice” pairing: Matfield and Botha graced three RWCs together (and Matfield an incredible four in total), and go down as one of the most formidable starting duos ever, not least for their different lists of attributes and the way they complemented each other.
But when it comes to gauging how seamlessly the next-in-line locks could fit in if required to do so without noticeably compromising the strength of the team as a whole, Rassie Erasmus’s 2019 charges arguably cut the mustard in that department better than any predecessors from six prior World Cups.
For example, the Boks sacrifice little in either grunt or athletic prowess if Snyman slots in for regular No 4 jersey-wearer Etzebeth (probably around the prime of his rugby life), and there is even less of a surrender in anticipated standards when you substitute, say, De Jager for Mostert in the middle of the lineout.
Indeed, the pecking order for the Bok No 5 jersey at this tournament isn’t even a cut-and-dried thing: although the Gloucester-based Mostert is effectively the incumbent, De Jager’s ever-accelerating return to maximum fitness after a layoff puts him right in the frame to potentially leapfrog the industrious former Lions stalwart.
Several key numbers also enhance the theory that mastermind Erasmus may just be blessed with the leading embarrassment of riches at lock from all RWCs the Boks have taken part in.
For starters, this crop possesses a great balance between them when it comes to average age (26, which seems pretty close to perfect), and average tally of caps between them (41, and none with fewer than 15).
Both the average age (again 26) and caps (slightly more, 44) of the second-row customers in Heyneke Meyer’s bronze-winning RWC 2015 squad weigh up favourably with the present, it must be noted.
But don’t forget that, at the last event, the figures were influenced to a deceptive extent by one man, Matfield, who hugely inflated the average age by beginning it aged an unusual 38, and already sporting a humungous personal 123 appearances – he was past his best, understandably, and walked an injury tightrope quite a lot of the time in the UK.
One of the designated locks then, too, was a certain Pieter-Steph du Toit (then a four Test-cap rookie), who has subsequently been remodelled into a much-lauded blindside flank.
On the subject of Du Toit, he remains a seriously compelling FIFTH option as a second-rower if there happens to be an injury plague for the Boks in the berth in Japan – a truly enviable position for any national team to be in.
In the 2011 World Cup, the Boks sported a gnarly quartet at lock in the shape of Botha, Matfield, Johann Muller and Danie Rossouw, although the downside was that all were already thirtysomethings (average between them an advanced 32).
South Africa have also gone into at least two RWCs with a dangerously low average tally of caps between the locks: for 2003 it was 11, and in 1995 on home soil (despite the legendary maiden triumph) an especially negligible four – the most prior Test appearances of the group belonged to Mark Andrews (nine) and even then he was famously shifted to No 8 at the business end of the event.
Here is the complete list of designated locks (though certain loose forwards have been able to double as occasional second-rowers) for South Africa at all World Cups:
RWC 2019: Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Franco Mostert, RG Snyman (average age 26; average caps at tournament outset 41)
RWC 2015: Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Pieter-Steph du Toit (average age 26; average caps at tournament outset 44)
RWC 2011: Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Johann Muller, Danie Rossouw (average age 32; average caps at tournament outset 65)
RWC 2007: Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Johann Muller, Albert van den Berg (average age 29; average caps at tournament outset 38)
RWC 2003: Selborne Boome, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw (average age 26; average caps at tournament outset 11)
RWC 1999: Mark Andrews, Krynauw Otto, Fritz van Heerden, Albert van den Berg (average age 27; average caps at tournament outset 25)
RWC 1995: Mark Andrews, Hannes Strydom, Kobus Wiese, Krynauw Otto (average age 26; average caps at tournament outset 4)
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing