Planet Rugby

Springbok scrum in dire state

26th August 2014 15:21

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South Africa front row scrum jannie du plessis argentina 2012

Regressing: Jannie du Plessis

By dominating the scrums in their recent Test in Salta, Argentina exposed South Africa's growing deficiency at Test level.

It's an old cliché that the Boks' gameplan is all about physical dominance and winning the collisions up front.

But when they came off second best in that department, as they did to the Pumas, the two-time World Cup winners looked vulnerable. The truth be told, only Argentina's inexperience allowed the visitors to come from behind to clinch a narrow win.

New Zealand would have watched that game with interest. In recent years, they've beaten the Boks with regularity while holding their own against their old foes up front.

Imagine what will happen if the All Blacks' forwards actually dominate their Springbok counterparts like Argentina did.

With the All Blacks possessing a far superior back-line, Springbok supporters who hail their tight five could be be made to eat humble pie while their side concedes a half century of points, unless their defence saves them.

The warning signs were there for Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer after the Boks took a pummelling at the set-piece in the tournament opener in Pretoria.

Meyer opted to bring in Gurthrö Steenkamp as Beast Mtawarira's replacement a week later; a surprising selection as scrummaging has never been one of Steenkamp's strengths when wearing the green and gold of his country.

That's not to say he hasn't stood his ground, but I can't remember Steenkamp ever really dominating an opponent in the scrums. What I do recall, however, is how he was destroyed in the scrums by then-Leicester prop Martin Castrogiovanni during a midweek tour match for the Boks in 2009.

Jannie du Plessis' poor performances in recent weeks are a big concern, as scrummaging has basically been his only strength for most of his career. But that aspect of the 31-year-old's game has not been as solid this season as in the past.

Frans Malherbe was putting pressure on the veteran prop for a place in the starting line-up, until the 23-year-old sustained a season-ending ankle injury in Salta.

That is a genuine blow as his replacement, Marcel van der Merwe and the other back-up prop Trevor Nyakane, have not faced the top-tier sides at Test level yet, which means that Meyer will in all likelihood persevere with Du Plessis on the tighthead and either Mtawarira or Steenkamp on the other side of the scrum.

The Boks' scrummaging coach, former France front-row Pieter de Villiers, must have been having sleepless nights while preparing his front-rowers for their recent matches against Argentina, but with Australia and New Zealand looming on the horizon he might feel that the Bok scrum can improve.

What is also concerning, especially to De Villiers, is the lack of quality tighthead props in South Africa; a nation that has always taken great pride in scrummaging.

Apart from Du Plessis and Malherbe there are very few genuine contenders to play for the Boks at Test level.

Van der Merwe started out as a tighthead but was moved to loosehead while playing at the Cheetahs by the Bloemfontein-based outfit's scrummaging coach Os du Randt.

The 23-year-old only returned to tighthead when he moved to the Bulls last year.

Nyakane is primarily a loosehead but his versatility is one of his strengths and he has worn the number three jersey for the Cheetahs on numerous occasions.

Of the other contenders, Montpellier-bound Pat Cilliers has plenty of experience and has played in six Tests for South Africa while Meyer appears to have lost patience with the Cheetahs' Coenie Oosthuizen, who was rated as the Boks' next big scrummaging hopeful a couple of seasons ago.

Oosthuizen - a superb ball-carrier - has undergone several neck operations in recent seasons and, like Nyakane, is a loosehead who can stand his man at tighthead.

He has, however, battled in the scrums on the odd occasion while wearing the number three jersey.

So why exactly have the Boks been in reverse gear in the scrums? Many enthusiasts believe that the props are tired after a long Super Rugby campaign.

I disagree with this theory as Du Plessis is the only one of the starting trio, in the two Tests against Argentina, who has been an ever-present for the Sharks in that tournament.

Mtawarira was battling to overcome injury for large parts of the Sharks' campaign while Steenkamp was in action for Top 14 outfit Toulouse, often off the bench.

Too little credit is given to Argentina, who are actually the dominant force when it comes to scrummaging at Test level.

They should also get the better of Australia and New Zealand at the set-piece which will make the Boks feel somewhat better.

It will then be plain-sailing for the rest of the season for South Africa, as they hold their own or get the better of other opponents in the scrums. Until they face the acid test in the set piece against Argentina again in 2015.

By David Skippers

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