DURBAN - England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup winning coach Clive Woodward is as well known for his competitiveness as a player and coach as he is for his caustic wit.
In 1998, he took a young England team on tour to New Zealand. In the first Test they lost 64-22 in Dunedin and at the following week’s press conference in Auckland he said: “Here we are re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic and the All Blacks have just selected it on the left wing!” He was, of course, talking about that blockbusting Tongan-born Jonah Lomu.
This week Allister Coetzee could have raised a wry smile to that comment although his situation in 2017 is different to that of Woodward, who had taken an experimental side to New Zealand while the Boks are on the rise. But Coetzee would privately acknowledge that yet again the All Blacks have unearthed a juggernaut that threatens to take world rugby by storm.
Anybody who saw how Tonga’s - sorry New Zealand’s - flank Vaea Fifita skinned Argentina’s wing Emiliano Boffelli on the outside to score a sensational and possibly game-breaking try in New Plymouth will know that they saw something special.
The Hurricanes’ opensider is 1.96m and 115kg (without a centimetre of fat) and has been an express selection by coach Steve Hansen after just a season with the Hurricanes. He is that devastating. The new Lomu, only he is closer to the action at flank.
Fifita, for the record, came on a Tongan schools tour to New Zealand when he was 18, was immediately talent spotted and offered a bursary to finish his education in New Zealand.
That is how New Zealand raid the impoverished islands of Tonga, Fiji and Samoa. The here and now is that this new “freak”, as 1995 England captain Will Carling described Lomu, who can run around wings with ease, has to be contained.
If a press conference quote was proffered from a member of the Bok coaching staff it would go along the lines of: “We have noted Fifita but we respect all the All Blacks players and we will rather be concentrating on our own game.”
Don’t buy that ... there will be plotting and planning to stop Fifita before he can get up to a gallop, because when he does, he only stops beyond the tryline. Why did Lomu not score against the Springboks in his career? Because the Boks had a plan to smother him before he could get up to speed.
The injury to Jaco Kriel might well have made Coetzee’s job of selecting a loose trio to contain this threat easier, because one way of shutting down Fifita is to stop him at the source by picking your burliest loose forward combination.
Everybody in world rugby learned from the All Blacks’ series against the British and Irish Lions. You have to stop the Kiwis gaining momentum. Has Uzair Cassiem done anything wrong at No 8 this season? No. But perhaps this a horses-for courses-game where the muscular, belligerent Du Preez twins can do a job. This could well be the time to give Daniel du Preez his debut (at No 8), alongside brother Jean-Luc, with Siya Kolisi providing the mobility.
Sadly Fifita did not recover from an injury and was not named in the Kiwi squad announced late on Wednesday. The Boks will get another crack at the juggernaut soon, however, with the All Blacks’ eagerly anticipated visit to Newlands next month.