Cape Town – Is this really the appropriate occasion to pull out main muscle-man Malcolm Marx from the starting mix?
That was my first thought – and it’s lingering – on perusing the Lions’ line-up for a Super Rugby match they really could do with winning against the Chiefs in Hamilton on Friday (09:35 SA time).
It was revealed on Tuesday that the tourists, coming off successive, comprehensive defeats in the competition, have given rotational rests (partially, as they still see bench service) to tight-five kingpin and Springbok hooker Marx, as well other core Jo’burg figures and co-internationals like flyhalf Elton Jantjies and fullback Andries Coetzee.
This almost automatically gives the Lions, already not exactly aided this year by injuries and the surrender between seasons of several gnarly players to overseas clubs, a particularly vulnerable look to their XV who will run out at FMG Stadium Waikato.
Maybe the plan is to introduce an impressive second-half cavalry off the splinters … but there’s also the considerable risk of the horse having bolted by then in the match-up with the steadily improving Mooloo Men.
After all, they now find themselves tackling the Chiefs with a notable rookie in charge of key initial tactical operations at No 10, in the shape of Gianni Lombard, the 21-year-old former SA Schools wunderkind from Worcester.
While he brings an exciting enough sense of the “unknown” at this level, Lombard is many moons behind long-serving Jantjies for pure experience and know-how in Super Rugby.
At least the replacement for Marx this weekend – Robbie Coetzee – is anything but a greenhorn at this level; the nearly 30-year-old has been active in Super Rugby since 2013 and is a trusty squad man.
But he is not in the big-name league of the Bok incumbent, considered arguably the finest wearer of a No 2 jersey in the world, and the Lions have already been taking some strain in the front five of late even with the 114kg behemoth in their midst.
Remember that they lost two stalwart props ahead of 2019 – Jacques van Rooyen and Ruan Dreyer – and suffered a further setback more recently when injury side-lined first-choice loosehead Dylan Smith, who is still absent.
It has given their scrum, understandably, a creaky look at times; remove the heavyweight figure of Marx and the Chiefs should really be fancying their chances in that area of play – probably among others – on Friday.
The surrender in starting terms of the acumen of Marx, Jantjies and others in Hamilton will be frustrating to many Lions supporters, who have – or at least had, until the line-up was announced? – every reason to believe that the Chiefs game is potentially more winnable than the following weekend against the mighty Crusaders in Christchurch.
Unless their usually wily coach Swys de Bruin has some undisclosed tricks up his sleeve, it just seems to me as if the Lions are almost doing things the wrong way around on the two-game New Zealand leg; they may be back at fuller strength on paper yet take a whipping anyway from the hard-to-halt ‘Saders in game two.
Didn’t they need to throw the kitchen sink more earnestly, in terms of starting-team strength, at the Chiefs?
They have a better recent away history against them, when you consider the 2016 visit to the same ground, when they ran in tries through Marx, Courtnall Skosan, Ruan Combrinck and Warren Whiteley en route to a thrilling 36-32 upset.
On the plus side, two of those figures (Whiteley and Skosan) start this time, and the restoration of Whiteley to his captaincy post after several weeks of layoff also means that the Lions, for the first time this season, may be fielding their best loose-forward combo as the rangy Bok No 8 is allied with Cyle Brink and tearaway Kwagga Smith.
Just how much the various SA Super Rugby coaches are doing their prize-asset rotations in line with the desires of Bok coach Rassie Erasmus is relatively unknown, as the public spin from SA Rugby is merely that “communication lines” are kept open between the parties, rather than hard-and-fast rules applying.
But there appears to have been a fairly sudden rash of Bok-related sit-outs over the past fortnight or so, after very few in the initial part of the campaign, just serving up a suggestion that parent-body headquarters, if you like, became a little restless about overuse of Test players.
There is a good case for arguing that there has been clumsy, short-sighted use of rotation already: like when the Bulls abruptly rested two noticeably in-the-groove Bok backliners – Handre Pollard and Jesse Kriel – for the same match against the Jaguares, and they were toppled at Loftus in a highly damaging result for the Pretoria side.
Similarly, Bok front-rowers Steven Kitshoff and Bongi Mbonambi, simultaneously, didn’t start a tour match for the Stormers against the Reds earlier this month, and they were beaten 24-12.
Here’s hoping history doesn’t repeat itself too often in the remainder of Super Rugby 2019 …
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