What Bismarck’s loss means

RYAN VREDE writes that Bismarck du Plessis is the most significant of all the Springboks’ injuries to date and further erodes the hope of them winning the Rugby Championship.

I wrote at the time that I didn’t believe the absence of Schalk Burger, Jaque Fourie, Danie Rossouw, Bakkies Botha and Fourie du Preez (who was courted for a Test return) among a clutch of uncapped players (Duane Vermeulen and Johan Goosen for example) would be terminal to the Springboks’ cause against England. There were competent replacements available who subsequently got the job done. Neither did I feel it would hinder them against Argentina last week, even with Pierre Spies and JP Pietersen added to that injury list.

It was their unavailability against Australia and New Zealand that most concerned me, although I still believed the depth was sufficient to beat the former and mount an appreciable challenge against the Blacks. But Du Plessis’ loss is a hammer blow. To understand it’s significance you have to take into account the tangible and non-tangible impact.

Technically he is the most complete hooker in the game. He is a brutal defender who has also grown as a breakdown scavenger in recent years. Indeed Heyneke Meyer highlighted this as amplifying his value, especially in light of the absence of a specialist openside flank. On attack he is a force at the gainline, a constant source of go-forward. His work-rate in both these facets of play is unmatched by any hooker on the planet (I know this because I’ve seen the Springboks’ analysis of all their competitors in this regard). Furthermore, his set piece work is excellent.

Away from the technical competencies, his game intelligence and temperament under pressure has improved markedly, as has his discipline, which was a point of concern early in his career. He has also become an accomplished leader. Meyer’s estimation of him in this regard has grown to the point where he had considered him for the captaincy. Finally, his experience will be sorely missed. Forty six caps into his Test career, Du Plessis’s presence at crunch times would have been a boon for a youthful and largely inexperienced Springbok pack.

Seldom will one player’s absence be decisive to the outcome, and I’m not suggesting Du Plessis holds such sway at this point in his career. He was, however, the heart and soul of the side and embodied every quality Meyer sought in his players. He has the capacity to galvanise those around him through the standard he sets. He is a match winner.

His replacement, Adriaan Strauss, is a fine player but he isn’t in Du Plessis’s class. That said, Strauss faces a decisive phase in his Test career, where his success or failure will have a significant bearing on the Springboks’ fortunes. In the context of their game plan he is an important cog. His lineout feeds will come under the microscope and with the Springboks’ rolling maul being one of their primary weapons, Strauss’s accuracy will be central to their ability to set this in motion. It is also a facet of play where the Springboks have traditionally had the edge over the Wallabies and Blacks.

In addition Strauss will have to rein in his fondness for lurking in the loose. It is a strategy that suits the Cheetahs’ approach but the Springboks will need him to get stuck in at ground zero in the coming Tests.

In Monday’s press conference in Mendoza Meyer described Strauss as world-class. That offering and other examples of his professed faith in him is not lip service. He has an extremely high regard for the player, whom he brought to the Bulls as a youngster and whose loss he deeply lamented when he returned to the Cheetahs. Strauss owes it to himself and Meyer to take the opportunity that now presents itself.

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