Although an extended injury-enforced layoff for Pieter-Steph du Toit is a considerable blow for the Boks, Franco Mostert can offer similar strengths at blindside flank, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
When you consider that the Springboks went into the decisive third Test against the British & Irish Lions without two of their most influential forwards in Du Toit and Duane Vermeulen, it only heightens the magnitude of the hosts’ achievement to emerge victorious from a war of attrition.
Vermeulen is about as close as it gets to an irreplaceable player, but the Boks got it spot on when they settled on Jasper Wiese to fill the void for the final two Tests. Yet, with Vermeulen on the road to recovery from an ankle injury, another part of the Boks’ World Cup-winning back row should be restored by the time the Tests against Australia and New Zealand arrive.
Unfortunately from a Springbok perspective, though, Du Toit is set to miss the Rugby Championship after undergoing shoulder surgery this week, and may well only be back in 2022.
As with Vermeulen, a player of the calibre of Du Toit takes some replacing, and blindside flank has not been viewed as one of the positions overflowing with world-class alternative options for the Springboks.
Or, is it?
Arguably, there is one standout Springbok who not only enhanced his reputation during this past Lions series, but in fact shattered the ceiling of expectation.
That man was Mostert.
His work rate was off the charts, with the mobile forward hitting rucks (68) and making tackles (42) for fun, while offering reliability at the lineout and with kick receipts.
For the final Test, the injury to Du Toit – sustained when he was lifted and dumped by Duhan van der Merwe off the ball – brought about a double alteration to the Springboks’ starting forwards pack.
Mostert had to shift from the second row to blindside flank, while Lood de Jager started at No 5. It meant the Springboks went into the series decider with no specialist lock replacement on the bench, and plenty of responsibility suddenly fell on the shoulders of Mostert to make a success of his transition to flank, while also covering the second row in case of injury.
In one fell swoop, it made Mostert arguably the most integral player to the Springboks’ cause, particularly as Jacques Nienaber reverted to a five-three forwards-to-backs split on the bench.
As it turned out, the 30-year-old seamlessly slotted in at No 7 which, in fairness, was rather in keeping with the Bok philosophy that even when the number on the jersey changes, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a need for the role played to undergo any fundamental alterations.
Of course, the Springboks will miss some of Du Toit’s extra size and physicality as a momentum stopper on defence and momentum contributor with ball in hand, but Mostert has proved that he can’t be underestimated in this regard.
There’s a remarkable accuracy in the tackling power of Mostert and, similarly to Du Toit, his athleticism means he is often in the right place at the right time, as reflected by his omnipresence at the contact points whether on defence or offence.
The term the Springbok coaches like to use – particularly when it comes to gauging when to make substitutions – relates to whether players are getting into ‘the battles’ as effectively and consistently as needed.
It’s in this regard that Mostert’s insatiable work engine sets him apart and again, like Du Toit, is more than capable of playing 80 minutes of high-intensity Test rugby without breaking stride.
The Boks know that they can call on Kwagga Smith, Rynhardt Elstadt or Jean-Luc du Preez (when fit) to provide cover at blindside, but in Mostert they have found the closest thing to a like-for-like replacement for Du Toit.
This past weekend’s clash with the Lions was the first time Mostert has started at flank in a Test match. However, there is reason to believe that by the time the 2021 season ends, he will have enjoyed several more appearances in the No 7 jersey.
It’s an examination of his versatility and capabilities that he seems more than well equipped to pass with flying colours.