The set-piece battle between the Lions and Sharks on Saturday sent out another stark reminder about the match-defining perils of a malfunctioning scrum, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
There would have been a sobering sense of déjà vu for the Sharks on Saturday as they made a highly encouraging start to proceedings at Ellis Park, only to find momentum shifting back towards the opposition as the hosts began to dominate at scrum time.
If one recalls, it was a similar story in last year’s Currie Cup final, with the Sharks having established early ascendancy in most facets of play, before Province made a massive statement when they sent the Sharks’ first scrum wheeling backwards.
It turned out to be the defining feature of the domestic showpiece, and after Province had battled back to claim an impressive 33-21 win, coach John Dobson admitted that their scrum dominance had served as a much-needed confidence booster.
It was a similar story for the Lions this past weekend as they steamrolled the Sharks’ scrum at that first set piece – which set the tone for the remainder of a clash that otherwise proved to be a highly competitive affair.
The Boks also experienced that sort of sinking feeling when they were pummeled in the scrums by Ireland last November, and ultimately succumbed to a historic heaviest-ever 38-3 defeat in Dublin.
Such results shouldn’t just be glossed over. The oldest cliché in the (rugby) book is that ‘it all starts up front’, but it’s also often underappreciated just how crucial this facet of play can be to the end result.
A flashy backline player most often claims the Man of the Match award over a burly prop, but Jacques van Rooyen would have certainly been a most deserving candidate after giving Thomas du Toit a real working over on Saturday.
The Sharks are determined for Du Toit to make a successful transition from loosehead to tighthead prop, but it’s an immensely difficult move to make, and one that will require time and experience in that No 3 jersey. It’s also a very brave man who accepts that the gruelling Super Rugby competition will be his training ground.
It’s a move that has been at least partially inspired in the national interest at a time when there are limited stocks in the tighthead prop position, while SA Rugby scrum guru Pieter de Villiers is said to be a staunch supporter of Du Toit’s transition.
The Sharks are determined to persist with the move, and there is no need to panic after just one round of action, but Saturday’s scrumming display will have been especially painful after the way things went down in the Currie Cup final.
Yet, as part of SA Rugby’s new policy to work closely with local franchises, De Villiers now needs to prioritise the time he spends in Durban to ensure that Du Toit has the necessary mentorship to make a success of this highly challenging transition.
Considering that Coenie Oosthuizen will be out of action for most of this year due to a serious knee injury, it’s understandable that both the Sharks and Springbok bosses are so keen to see Du Toit make the move across the front row, but the player’s best interests should always be put first.
SA Rugby is also understood to be keeping a close eye on the performances of overseas-based Vincent Koch, which again highlights the lack of experienced tighthead prop depth in South African rugby following the retirement of Julian Redelinghuys, and the neck injury that has plagued Frans Malherbe.
Ultimately, it’s not often that the subject of scrumming will dominate headlines, but in recent times, there have been some stark reminders of just how important it is to appreciate the value of powerful set-piece props who are masters of this dark art.
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