Cape Town - Western Province openside flanker Siya Kolisi doesn’t have the ground skills of a thoroughbred fetcher, but his duel with Eastern Province Kings captain Luke Watson will be decisive when the teams clash in Port Elizabeth on Friday night.
Watson, who spent five seasons at WP from 2005 to 2009, exploded on to the rugby scene for the Sharks in 2003 as a potent fetcher, a role later mimicked by Heinrich Brüssow and, most recently in Cape Town, Deon Fourie.
Fourie now plies his trade in France and Kolisi has been drafted in to fill the void. WP coach Allister Coetzee knows it’s not a like-for-like replacement.
“Fetching is a skill and it’s not Siya’s forte,” Coetzee said. “I’m not going to harp on it and try and change him to be a different player.”
Change is exactly what Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is looking for from the WP flanker, who he believes has a brighter future at blindside flanker than No 6.
But Province is flush with big, bruising No 7 options - such as Michael Rhodes and Rynhardt Elstadt - while openside flanker candidates are sparse.
At 1.87m and 102kg, Kolisi is somewhat of a tweener. He’s tall and lumbering in comparison to Waratahs fetcher Michael Hooper (1.82m, 101kg) and short and light when compared with Sharks blindside brute Willem Alberts (1.92m, 118kg).
Where Meyer is looking for a specialist, and thus believes that Kolisi is better suited to carrying the ball than stealing it, Coetzee likes the versatility of the 10-Test flanker.
“As the opensider on attack, Siya will carry a lot for us and he has to get to the first breakdown (from a set piece) to clean,” added the WP coach. “And defensively, if he can’t steal then he still has to be destructive at the breakdown. There are two forms of creating turnovers at the breakdown and he’s more suited for the latter,” he said.
A fetcher like Hooper creates turnovers by physically stealing possession from the attacking team at the tackle point, getting in over the ball as the tackler or the first arrival.
The alternative to this method is tanking, in which the defender effectively walks through the ruck, committing multiple cleaners, hindering the tackled player’s ability to place the ball cleanly and generally creating chaos at the breakdown.
It’s a less direct route to a turnover, but it robs the attackers of three essential ingredients for a low-error rate, namely tempo, composure and the support players needed to sustain multiple phases.
Kolisi has the raw power, toughness and durability required to tank the breakdown. Watson, deployed at No 8 these days, is still a dangerous ball hawk when he swoops on the tackle point.
The two opponents will cross swords early and often on Friday. Kolisi is primed to halt ball-carrying Watson in his tracks - and unleash a whirlwind of destruction thereafter.
The Kings captain will believe he can beat Kolisi in a sprint race to the first tackle point following every WP set piece.
The success of every strike from a scrum or lineout at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium will almost certainly have its roots in the result of this duel, and chances are that whichever of these two forwards gets the ascendancy will jog off with the winning team.
In a late development, lock Jean Kleyn has been bumped up into the starting XV, with Eben Etzebeth to come off the bench.