New Bok locks hold key
THE IRONY cannot be more striking.
The Springbok engine-room, held up until recently as the most enduring, and perhaps more contentiously, most celebrated in test rugby will be replaced by the greenest rookies you could possibly chain and herd to the deep end.
Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield now earn top dollar elsewhere and in their absence it has now fallen to the uncapped Eben Etzebeth, 20, and Juandre Kruger, 26, to forge a locking partnership of some force.
They start their partnership on Saturday against England but they are an odd couple, not in an awkward Matthau-Lemon sense but rather for the leap of faith coach Heyneke Meyer was prepared to make. Meyer grudgingly acknowledges, big leaps can expose soft underbellies.
“I think it is quite a unique thing to have two debutant locks starting,” Meyer conceded.
“It is a huge step-up for them and they must prove they can play at this level but I’m very confident about them. I went with form,” said Meyer.
It speaks volumes of Etzebeth’s vast potential that he pushed back Meyer’s cast iron convictions. Meyer, for him almost unfathomably, broke up an established provincial pairing.
“Eben brings something different to the party,” Meyer enthused. “He’s very good at contesting in the lineout. I don’t want to say he’ll be the next Bakkies Botha, I believe he can surpass that. Eben can be a world-class lock. I think he was the best No4 lock in Super rugby. It was just fair to go with him,” insisted Meyer.
Kruger has stepped into the boots vacated by Matfield with a spring in his step. He is a Matfield protege and he owes much to the former Bok captain.
Apart from becoming the Bulls’’ go-to guy at the lineout, Kruger, through his stint at Northampton has some idea of what to expect on Saturday.
“I know a little bit about the England players but ultimately the most important thing is preparation. That gives the team calmness,” said Kruger.
Like Botha, calmness is not what got Etzebeth into the national team. “I want to put down my own stamp but there is the physicality part of Bakkies’ play that I like,” said Etzebeth.
He might go up against a firebrand England may consider their version of Botha, namesake Mouritz.
“I’’ve seen he’s also South African but I don’t expect him to do me any favours. Maybe I’ll have a few words for him,” said Etzebeth.
“There will be nerves. Having said that I don’t know the difference between Super Rugby and test rugby. I’ll find out on Saturday,” said Etzebeth.
Bakkies could not have said it better.
On Saturday the Springboks will field two debutant locks in a test match for the first time since 1993.
In that match, 29 years ago, Bok selectors picked Hannes Strydom and Nico Wegner, neither of whom had played test rugby before. Wegner was 24 at the time and Strydom 28.
South Africa lost the test 18-17 at Ellis Park.
Wegner played only four tests. The next three were all against Australia — one victory and two defeats.
Strydom went on to play 21 tests, forming a combination with Kobus Wiese at lock and was part of the Springbok team that won the 1995 Rugby World Cup.