DURBAN - Probably the toughest unenforced selection poser for Allister Coetzee this week for the Test against Ireland in Dublin is who to start at loosehead prop - 95-Test veteran Tendai Mtawarira or Steven Kitshoff, the flame-haired fury who had such a sensational match against the All Blacks in Cape Town.
It will be one heck of a head-scratcher for the coach because there are convincing arguments for each player, one of whom is enjoying a renaissance in the twilight of his career while the other is in such blistering form that it is tempting to play him every minute of the game.
Coetzee just about did that at Newlands, only subbing Kitshoff in the dying minutes of the epic encounter.
The Beast, 32, asked to be stood down for that Rugby Championship match in Cape Town on October 7 because of family reasons, opening the door for the 25-year-old Kitshoff to start his first match for his country after biding his time on the substitute bench behind the Beast. He subbed the Beast 17 times, and each appearance was a cameo of note, and by the end of last season, the argument had taken hold that Mtawarira should be put out to pasture and Kitshoff given the No1 jersey that had been owned by the Beast since his debut in June, 2008.
About two months ago, former Bok loosehead prop and current TV pundit Robbie Kempson was asked which of the two should start - Mtawarira or Kitshoff?
“If you had asked me this question six months ago I would have definitely gone for Kitshoff but the Beast is back to his best form,” Kempson said. “He is rejuvenated and playing as well as he did against the British and Irish Lions in 2009. So I would stick with Kitshoff making his massive impacts off the bench.”
But since those comments by Kempson, Kitshoff has advanced his reputation yet further, and today Kempson might give you a different answer to that question.
The comforting fact for Coetzee is that he has two looseheads playing arguably the best rugby of their careers, and he needs to work out how best to use them against one of the best front rows in world rugby.
Coetzee is also reassured that the player that starts at loosehead knows that he has to pull finger, and then some!
For Ireland, tighthead Tadgh Furlong, hooker Rory Best and loosehead Jack McGrath are a long established and world-renowned combination, and all three featured for the Lions in the three Tests against the All Blacks in June, with Furlong starting all of the Tests and becoming a crowd favourite in New Zealand. At 1.85m and 127kgs, he is built like the proverbial brick outhouse and loves to carry the ball to crowd applause, with the Kiwi public nick-making him “the Sherman Tank”. In the Lions’ second Test, a victory over the Kiwis, the New Zealand Herald newspaper gave Furlong a rating of 8/10.
Best and McGrath played off the bench against the All Blacks.
If you take Mtawarira out of the Bok starting front row, Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx and Wilco Louw have very few starting caps among them (Best alone has played 105 caps for Ireland) but that would make the Bok young bucks all the hungrier to prove themselves. However, they should not be intimidated by the reputation of their Irish counterparts for Test matches are not won on paper.
And talking of the All Blacks, they will still have fresh in their minds the blitzkrieg performance by Kitshoff, who threw himself at them with reckless abandon at Newlands. He was brilliant in every aspect of the game and was only marginally behind Marx in the Man of the Match stakes (the TV decision to give the award to an All Black simply because they had won the game was laughable).
The Beast has in his favour the fact that he has played many Tests in Northern Hemisphere conditions, but then Kitshoff lived and played in France for 18 months, earning 34 caps for Bordeaux before deciding to return to the Cape.
The brave call for Coetzee would be to make a tough decision and retain Kitshoff. A compromise, perhaps cop-out even, would be to give Beast 50 minutes and then unleash Kitshoff.