JON CARDINELLI writes that Brian Mujati’s work-rate at the scrum and around the park make him a prime candidate for World Cup selection.
2009 was a watershed year for the Zimbabwean-born prop. After two disappointing seasons with the Stormers, and an uninspiring start with the Springboks in 2008, he left South Africa for a club career in England. Most critics questioned Mujati’s decision to play in the northern competitions, as the forward-oriented nature would surely expose his scrumming weakness.
But Mujati underwent a transformation at Northampton and what was once his weakness became his strength. He’s developed to the point where he plays a key role in the most powerful scrum in Europe. Northampton qualified for the European Cup and Premiership play-offs, and those in the know will tell you the Saints’ pack is largely responsible for that relative success.
Mujati must be in the Bok picture for the upcoming Tri-Nations as well as the World Cup. His all-round form is better than that of any tighthead playing for the five South African franchises, and his introduction to the national side would inject some much-needed menace and purpose into a plodding Bok scrum.
The Boks battled to dominate during Jake White’s tenure, but the reign of Peter de Villiers has seen the scrum flit between average and embarrassing. De Villiers’s bizarre selections haven’t helped matters, and he has recently admitted that erred in moving captain John Smit from hooker to tighthead in 2008.
Jannie du Plessis seems to be everybody’s favourite to wear No 3 at the World Cup, although it’s hard to argue for his selection on the basis of performance. Since moving to the Sharks, he hasn’t developed his game to the point where he dominates opposition looseheads. He’s held his own at both Super Rugby and national level, and perhaps it’s time to trust in somebody who can hurt the opposition.
As a tighthead, Smit has struggled at the scrum, but he did lend the Boks some bite at the breakdown. Du Plessis may contribute around the ruck but is never going to be a ball-carrier of any great prowess. The simple fact of the matter is that his ball skills in contact are shocking. In the modern game, you can’t afford to pick a prop that makes so many handling errors.
Mujati has impressed for Northampton scrum, and has been a menace with ball in hand. Last week’s European Cup final showcased his aggressive nature in contact, and given that the Boks will always be a team that looks to dominate the collisions as a means to setting up victory, picking Mujati should be a no-brainer.
Favouring Mujati could see Du Plessis dropping out of the 22 altogether, as CJ van der Linde is valued as the ideal substitute due to his ability to play both tighthead and loosehead. But on that point, Van der Linde has plenty to prove after some dismal showings for the Stormers in 2011.
Van der Linde has never been the same player since he returned from Leinster. Backline players struggle when they don’t get the opportunity to settle in one position. Van der Linde hasn’t settled in one position at the Stormers and has thus battled for consistency. He hit a new low last week when he was outscrummed by the Blues’ Tom McCartney, a hooker who was filling in at loosehead for the injured Tony Woodcock.
There is certainly a gap for Mujati in the Springbok set-up, but he can play more than a secondary role. There will be a focus on set-piece dominance as the World Cup enters the knock-out stage, a period that usually sees expansive strategies shelved for more conservative alternatives. If the Boks hope to win these battles, they need to pick the best available players, and at the moment there isn’t a better all-round tighthead option than Brian Mujati.