The decision to retain Adriaan Strauss as Springbok captain for the rest of the year is perfectly understandable, but it should not compromise the possibility of a national recall for Bismarck du Plessis, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
In the end, Allister Coetzee’s confirmation that Strauss would retain the leadership reins for the Rugby Championship and end-of-year tour was communicated in rather strange circumstances.
When Strauss was effectively asked at Saturday’s post-match press conference to state his case to remain Springbok skipper, Coetzee interjected and confirmed there was no need for any ‘job interview’. Strauss, he reiterated, was clearly the man for the job.
What Coetzee has done well during his first series in charge with the Boks is to instill confidence and trust in his players. That much has been abundantly apparent. Despite a shock opening loss and a far from completely convincing second Test performance, the Bok coach made just the solitary unenforced change throughout the series.
He regularly reiterated that he couldn’t afford to create a culture where players felt that the selection axe was prematurely hanging precariously over their heads. In response, under-pressure players such as JP Pietersen, Frans Malherbe, Francois Louw and Strauss all stepped up to produce influential performances in the third and final Test.
Yet, despite the series win in the end, it’s still been a sobering few weeks for the Springboks in many ways, and there can be no denying that a number of shortcomings were exposed by a wily Ireland side guided by astute coach Joe Schmidt.
It’s particularly concerning to think that in less than three months’ time, the Boks will come up against the might of the All Blacks.
Nevertheless, the Boks will take heart from the fact that they managed to somehow manufacture a series victory under immense pressure against the Irish. And, ultimately, the extent of that pressure should not be underestimated.
The Boks began the series in the worst possible fashion after succumbing to a first-ever defeat to Ireland in South Africa, and for the rest of the series, criticism and waves of public negativity hovered over the Springbok camp.
Strauss, as the leader of the team, admitted he took that defeat extremely personally, and felt immense responsibility to be accountable for where things had gone wrong. At the end of Saturday’s match in Port Elizabeth, Strauss looked understandably weary, but also immensely relieved.
Ultimately, his ability to weather the storm as the team’s leader served to underline his value as captain. To suddenly yank him from that role after just three Tests would have made no sense.
Strauss is one of the leading lineout hookers in world rugby and his strength at scrum time is beyond reproach. However, he would surely acknowledge that he’d want to offer more in terms of his general play contributions on defence and with ball in hand.
Yet it would also be naive to suggest that the influence of a player such as Du Plessis would not have been of value against the Irish. Bismarck’s strengths, such as his physicality at the collisions and ability to pilfer possession at the breakdown, were certainly missed.
And therein lies the rub. Du Plessis has just turned 32, he plays his rugby overseas, and any Springbok involvement for the immediate future would require him to play second fiddle to Strauss.
Coetzee said on Saturday that he was happy with the squad he had at his disposal and intimated that there wouldn’t be many – if any – newcomers for the Rugby Championship, but surely it’s far too soon to suggest that Du Plessis and his 79 Test caps should be discarded to the Springbok scrapheap.
The matter is also further complicated by the fact that South Africa is blessed with depth and talent at hooker at the moment. Bongi Mbonambi is an immense prospect, while Scarra Ntubeni is very unlucky to not have a Bok cap to his name as yet. The prolifically talented Malcolm Marx, who many believe to be Bismarck’s heir-in-waiting, is also undoubtedly destined for higher honours.
Their time will surely come, but when considering a massive Rugby Championship Test against the All Blacks, one has to ask, who would be the best possible replacement once Strauss begins to run out of steam in the second half?
Can we really overlook the potential impact of a rampant Du Plessis for the final quarter of a high-intensity and high-pressure Test such as that against the world champs?
Let’s not forget that Strauss will be 31 in November. He cannot keep playing almost every minute of every Test (he played all but two minutes over the three matches against Ireland), and particularly in this regard, the value of Du Plessis’s experience should not be disregarded.
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