Jannie du Plessis must start at Twickenham if the Springboks are to have any hope of besting the English scrum.
Multiple front-row injuries have cut short the John Smit-tighthead experiment, and now there is talk of Brian Mujati having a sore shoulder. Du Plessis was recently called to London as his brother Bismarck and prop Gurthro Steenkamp were simultaneously released from the Bok camp. Du Plessis is likely to face one of the world’s premier looseheads in Andrew Sheridan this Saturday, and from the vibe gathered at Monday’s press conference, the Boks are feeling confident about the match up.
A World Cup winner in 2007, Du Plessis was deemed surplus to Bok requirements in 2008. He received a recall against Australia for the Ellis Park Test when CJ van der Linde was suspended and BJ Botha had left for Ireland, and did a solid job. This was on the back of a strong showing with his new Super 14 franchise, the Sharks. Many felt he was an unfortunate omission when the Boks’ UK touring squad was announced given the nature of the game up north and how Du Plessis’s strengths would be valuable.
If the Bok management pick Du Plessis to start this Saturday, it’s a sure acknowledgment of his value in northern conditions. Mujati has battled for the better part of the year, and does not boast the technical experience that comes with winning three Currie Cups and a World Cup winners medal. Mujati may be more mobile than Du Plessis, but it is the latter who will make the greater impact at the tight-phases. Up north, you need to favour set-phase proficiency over athleticism. Jake White applied this logic when playing Danie Rossouw at No 8 in last year’s World Cup, and look what came from that decision.
The question will be raised that if Mujati is fit enough to warm the bench this weekend, why isn’t he fit enough to start? The troubling answer may also point to another question as to whether he deserved a squad place ahead of seasoned specialists like Van der Linde, Botha and Du Plessis.
The same applies for Bulls hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle. If your first-choice hooker is injured, surely you’d back your second choice to slot in. It’s become accepted that Smit fulfills the hooking duties in the event of injury as he did last week, but if Smit is really supposed to concentrating on prop and Ralepelle is truly the understudy to Bismarck du Plessis, then why shouldn’t Ralepelle start this weekend? Smit’s covering for Du Plessis is only supposed to be in emergencies, as his own development at 3 was a priority on this tour.
Ralepelle has had little game time in the past two years and won his place on this tour ahead of more deserving players such as Adriaan Strauss. Strauss joined the Bok side when Smit was ruled him out of the Tri-Nations, and started for the Boks when Bismarck broke down. How Ralepelle has leapfrogged him in the hooking queue is anybody’s guess.
While calling up Jannie du Plessis is the right short-term solution, it speaks volumes for De Villiers’s lack of confidence in Mujati and Ralepelle. It may also say something about the move of Smit to tighthead, a move De Villiers promised was a long-term initiative with a view to the British & Irish Lions series and the 2011 World Cup. Either play Ralepelle at No 2 with Smit at 3, or call up Strauss to fill the hooking void. That would suggest continuity and a long-term plan.
But it’s become clear there is no plan, or at least there is little confidence in the fringe players already in the squad. Du Plessis is the best bet to scrum against Sheridan this weekend, and the Boks have a realistic chance of winning this battle. If one remembers that Mujati and Ralepelle are likely to remain in the set-up come the Lions series, then one has to ask why they aren’t being pushed through in what will be the ultimate acid Test at Twickenham. The Boks may win this Saturday, but they won’t learn anything new.