DURBAN - There is a strong call to arms in South Africa whenever a player performs especially well for a game or two, they are heralded as the next incumbent Springbok in their position and any deviation from this elevation to the starting XV would be blasphemy.
However, Test rugby is layered and being a replacement from the bench is becoming just as important a role. Master tactician, and almost Stormers coach, Eddie Jones reiterated this point when he went as far as to rename his bench for the past Six Nations Championship.
No longer would those with 16 to 23 on their backs be known as replacements, they were now the “Finishers”, and that change in perception of those bench players gives a lot of insight into their role in the hostile and harsh Test arena.
No-one wants to be on the bench, they want to be in the thick of things. But, if you are seen as the cavalry, storming in to finish off the battle, relieving your tired brethren on the battlefield - a feeling of pride and purpose is instilled.
In a Springbok camp that is also building back its culture, brotherhood and purpose must be at the forefront. The idea of a specialised bench is vital for a Test side, especially a Test side like the Springboks who are expected to beat all comers.
And, the bench that has been doing the duty recently has the same continuity as the starting XV, and as such, has the ability to become its own powerful unit.
Steven Kitshoff is an absolute machine for a burly prop. The young Western Province man is devastating in his core role as a scrummager, but he is also a huge threat with ball in hand and he truly relishes putting in a big hit.
There have been big calls for the redhead to wear Tendai Mtawarira’s No 1 jersey, and no doubt he deserves the accolade of being a starter. But when it comes to the team’s well being, one needs to think outside the box.
Mtawarira would not be the type of player you could categorise as a ‘finisher’, but a steady, experienced head that can settle early nerves? Absolutely. Pieter-Steph du Toit and Jean-Luc du Preez are huge assets to throw on once the grunt work has been done by Franco Mostert and Jaco Kriel.
Du Toit’s athleticism is hard to keep up with at the best of times, but to deal with that after being chased around the park by a rabid Mostert ... The opposition must cringe at the 60 minute mark.
Of course, other than being specialised finishers, the bench brigade do have to be multifaceted as they are also next in line to the position they cover. This is apparent with Francois Hougaard’s elevation to Ross Cronje’s jersey this weekend.
Hougaard is indeed a finisher who’s x-factor bamboozles when the game has cracked open a bit. However he also needs to show versatility and play the game that is presented to him from minute one.
Against the French, in the third Test, where he was the starting scrumhalf, he did not have a good game. Too much flair and excitement seemed to catch his teammates off guard as they were used to the more technical and metronomic Cronje.
In Salta, Hougaard is going to have to curb his natural instincts a bit as this Bok team does not need outrageous passes and audacious runs from minute one. They need to feel out the Test match first, to ensure dominance on hostile grounds.