DURBAN - The oldest cliché in the rugby book is that the game starts up front, but this could be where the Springboks lose Saturday's Test match against Ireland after coach Allister Coetzee made two crucial selections in the front row.
He has recalled Tendai Mtawarira and Coenie Oosthuizen at loosehead and tighthead respectively instead of making brave calls and picking in-form young bucks in Steven Kitshoff and Wilco Louw.
Coetzee has argued that the latter players will give him a power-packed bench. It will, but what if the game is lost by the time they come on?
Ireland have an exceptional front row spearheaded by British and Irish Lions stars Tadhg Furlong and Rory Best and veteran Cian Healy, who is no slouch himself.
We saw in the recent Currie Cup final what can happen when a front row gets well on top, as the Western Province combination did, forcing the Sharks to play on the back foot. In the second half of that match, the Sharks had little possession and were systematically destroyed.
The destroyer-in-chief was Louw, who has proved to be equally good at international level when he played off the bench at Newlands against the All Blacks. When he came on for struggling Ruan Dreyer, there was a noticeable lift in the Boks’ forward game.
Oosthuizen has played no rugby since that unfortunate injury in early September, while Louw remains on the bench.
Oosthuizen had a very good Super Rugby campaign for the Sharks and played well against France and Argentina. But he has had no contact for nearly two months. It is a big ask to throw him in against Ireland, especially against such a strong Irish front row.
Can Oosthuizen be expected to hit the ground running after a long break? Tighthead is a position where the only way you can grapple yourself into form is by live scrumming, in other words by playing. Scrumming against a machine is not the same thing, as scrum coach Matthew Proudfoot said on Tuesday ...
“With scrumming, you’ve got to be at the coal face where you experience challenges every week and your innate personality solves problems,” Proudfoot said. “You can’t solve it on a machine. You can’t do that.
"A machine is about timing and synergy. It’s not like cricket. You’ve got to be in the middle to get better. When it’s out there and it’s man-on-man, that’s when you get to see how good a player is. That’s where Tadhg Furlong has really impressed me.”
Mtawarira has all the experience in the world but he has not played since September 30.
Kitshoff was sensational against the All Blacks and while The Beast has practically owned the No 1 jersey since 2008, Kitshoff is in fact the incumbent and took his chance wonderfully at Newlands.
The third change to the starting line-up is at inside centre where Damian de Allende comes in for Jan Serfontein. It is a pity that the in-form Serfontein asked to be excused from this match but the opportunity is there for De Allende to recapture the form that made him a No 1 choice Bok in 2015 and most of 2016.
Coetzee clearly had thoughts of making a change at flyhalf judging by his comments early in the week. The coach said he would use the training session on Monday to clarify the condition of Elton Jantjies who is freshly back from Japan. Coetzee said he had been impressed with Handre Pollard in training over the last three weeks.
Again, Coetzee has made the conservative call but in this case it is probably the correct one although there is a counter argument that if the under-played Pollard never gets game time, then he will never get back to his best.
He said it: Coetzee in his own words
“Modern-day rugby is about using 23 players effectively, and having Kitshoff coming off the bench with 30 minutes to play has worked well for us this season.
“Ireland beat us here in Dublin in 2014 and with an experienced coaching team and world-class players, they are rightfully considered as the favourites. They are one of the few teams in the last five years that have managed to beat the All Blacks.
“The Irish have a world-class halfback pair in Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton and their set-piece play is extremely good, so it will be a great battle on Saturday. They know how to keep the ball and use a good kicking game to put teams under pressure.”
Springbok team: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Francois Louw, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth (c), 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Beast Mtawarira. Substitutes: Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff, Wilco Louw, Franco Mostert, Uzair Cassiem, Rudy Paige, Handré Pollard, Francois Venter.
Ireland team: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale; 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray; 8 CJ Stander, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Iain Henderson; 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (capt), 1 Cian Healy. Substitutes: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 John Ryan, 19 James Ryan, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Darren Sweetnam.