There is a widespread call for John Smit to return to hooker. But has Bismarck du Plessis made himself invaluable to the Springboks’ cause?
The majority of the focus in the build-up to the decisive Test against New Zealand in Hamilton has been centered around Smit’s perceived struggles at scrum time in the latter stages of the Perth Test against Australia and for the majority of the Brisbane Test last week.
The All Blacks’ coaching staff have intimated that they see Smit, and by extension the Springbok scrum, as vulnerable, and will surely look to assert their dominance in that facet of play on Saturday.
The Springboks have vehemently rejected the suggestion that they have been below par there, but they’ll have to ensure that there is an exponential improvement in their scrummaging on Saturday to dispel that widely held perception.
The implications of shifting Smit back to hooker haven’t been fully explored yet in the wave of emotion which has driven the debate. It would mean axing Du Plessis, who hasn’t had a bad game in the 2009 season to date. In fact, some would argue that he has established himself as the pre-eminent No 2 in world rugby at present. It seems that putting the pit bull down would be a very drastic measure.
In making the decision to give Du Plessis the chop the Springbok coaching staff would have to debate one primary question – would the Springboks be a stronger or weaker side without him in the run-on side?
Head coach Peter de Villiers has been vocal in his estimation of Du Plessis, and his appreciation is surpassed by forwards coach Gary Gold, who was liberal in his praise of the 25-year-old in an interview with SA Rugby magazine .
Gold oversaw the process of shifting Smit to tighthead prop to accommodate Du Plessis, whom the coaching staff feel adds a dynamic edge to their pack.
They needed him on the track for more than 20 minutes because, according to Gold, he is as complete a modern hooker as you can find anywhere on the planet. Asking Gold about Du Plessis is like asking a horse trainer to speak about the merits of his prize stallion. The superlatives flow readily, and you are acutely aware that he is deeply convinced he has the privilege of coaching a truly phenomenal athlete.
Gold begins, ‘First, he does the basic requirements of his position exceptionally. His lineout feeds are pin-point and he scrums with brute force and great technique. Secondly, you look for modern hookers to play as your fourth loose forward and Bizzie is excellent in this regard. He’s as quick as a blindside flank and has the ball-carrying ability of one to.
‘Then there’s his awesome power at the tackle point which gives him an advantage when he’s contesting the ball on the floor subsequent to the hit. If he doesn’t take you to deck, he has a strong wrap-tackle and the ability to hold you up.
‘Add all this to the fact that he has an X-factor that you can’t coach and the aptitude for high pressure matches acquired from being involved in successful World Cup, British & Irish Lions, and Currie Cup campaigns, and playing in a Super 14 final. I don’t use the word often to describe players, because there are so few of them, but he’s as complete a player in his position as you get.’
However, not everyone shares De Villiers and Gold’s appreciation for Du Plessis. Former Springbok tighthead prop and current scrum coach at Saracens, Cobus Visagie, on Wednesday told The Star that Du Plessis, not Smit, was the reason the Springboks are being bossed at scrums.
He explained that Saracens’ South African hookers Schalk Brits and Ethienne Reyneke have told him that Du Plessis’ high body position at the point of engagement made him relatively easy to scrum against, and that that placed additional pressure on his tighthead.
That assessment has to be taken seriously given that both Brits and Reyneke have fronted Du Plessis on numerous occasions, but given Gold’s unbridled praise of Du Plessis, and De Villiers’s high regard for the player, it is obvious that there aren’t any immediate plans to shaft him.
Another pertinent question would be whether the Springboks were a more prolific scrummaging unit with Smit at hooker and CJ van der Linde or BJ Botha at tighthead? Analyses of that period are likely to reveal they were not. The Springboks’ ordinary performances at scrum time are not new. It’s a problem De Villiers has inherited, not one that has developed during his tenure.
Suggestions that Smit should be dropped completely need to be treated with disdain. He has proved his value as a leader on countless occasions and the Springboks are significantly weaker without him.
What then is the answer to the scrum failings? Patience with Smit, who claims that he is still a year away from firing at optimal potency at tighthead? A more innovative and specialised approach to scrummaging, where the Springboks are coached in ways to circumvent their technical inferiority?
There is no simplistic solution and improvement will probably emanate from a combination of methods. There is, however, no question that a solution needs to be found because no side can become a truly dominant force with a vulnerable scrum.
By Ryan Vrede
– Read more about Bismarck in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine