Cape Town – Seasoned scrapper Bismarck du Plessis, all 114kg of him AND those formidable biceps, looked like being an integral part of the Springbok front-five mix for the first Test against England at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday.
Looked like … because we have learned from head coach Rassie Erasmus that he (and single-minded utility back Frans Steyn) will now only be considered from the second clash onward, as they will be deemed to have arrived too late to slot into plans after representing Montpellier’s losing cause in the weekend’s French Top 14 final.
Steyn always seemed likelier to miss out on the intended starting XV for this key statement-maker either way in the three-Test series, but many pundits were entitled to suspect room would be made, come what may, for Du Plessis.
He just seemed such a vital balancer – against an almost automatically gnarly English boiler room – in a Bok tight five that will now surrender even more experience, when you consider especially the long-known absence of front-line lock pairing Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager.
Just how ready the Battleship Bismarck would have been to roar straight into the Bok plans on Saturday, after an international absence stretching back to the World Cup bronze playoff against Argentina in October 2015, remained to be seen.
Yes, a lot of water – much of it muddy, alas – has gushed beneath the bridge since then.
But he is still a highly competitive hard man of rugby union and would have taken on something of a “chief enforcer” role in Johannesburg with Etzebeth missing and the Boks also rueing, even more pertinently, the side-lining of new top-rated hooker and fellow physical juggernaut of the front row Malcolm Marx.
Shouldn’t Erasmus have stuck to the (apparent) Du Plessis plan for Saturday, even if the 79-cap veteran was only able to go 50 minutes or so in the thin Highveld air, and while also acknowledging that late arrival for squad build-up purposes isn’t an ideal principle to allow?
Instead the suggestion is that Bongi Mbonambi will plug the gap in the No 2 jersey against England.
On the face of it, that seems a sensible enough alternative: the big-hearted Stormers representative was looking a worthy, quite well-established deputy (then to the booming Marx, of course) at hooker for the national side by the end of last year.
But there are at least two reasons why, for immediate purposes, potentially switching to Mbonambi as starter might just impede more than enhance the Bok tight five on Saturday.
For starters, if Du Plessis is perhaps a tad weary after a long European season, quite the opposite applies to the 27-year-old: he missed months of Stormers activity after an emergency appendix operation and looked rusty when he emerged from the Newlands bench for a short second-half stint in the derby loss to the Lions two weeks ago.
Suddenly he looks like being catapulted into Test-level intensity, from the outset … and on the Highveld, which only adds to the challenge.
Erasmus reportedly enthused on Monday about his traditionally sound conditioning, albeit that there is still no substitute for game-time, really, ahead of a red-letter international.
But Mbonambi is also a very different physical beast to Du Plessis.
He commands an edge in mobility, something probably only enhanced by the latter’s much more advanced years, although he gives up some 12-15kg of pure “grunt” on the 34-year-old.
That may just be exposed a little at scrum-time, where Trevor Nyakane, tipped to make a maiden start as a Test tighthead prop (he has begun two prior ones on the other side) could have done with the extra ballast provided by Du Plessis.
There is also no special comfort for Nyakane statistically in the fact that his hooker (if Mbonambi) has only previously begun one prior Test himself, a 2017 Padova victory over minnows Italy.
Against an English team boasting such proven tight-five names as Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Maro Itoje and Joe Marler, the Boks could also find it tough to outmuscle their rivals if the rumoured lock pairing – debutant RG Snyman and Franco Mostert – is fielded.
Mostert has one of the best work ethics you will find in a South African second-rower (and sometimes blindsider) but if he is preferred to someone like the bulkier Pieter-Steph du Toit at No 5, South Africa will be making a further sacrifice on the bathroom scale of around 10kg or more.
Of course there are varying ways to outfox a rival pack – a little collective drive and passion goes a long way – but the Bok unit expected to run out in the Big Smoke looks in some danger, to me, of struggling to earn important physical dominance of England …
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