Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The three-week suspension of Cheetahs hooker and captain Adriaan Strauss adversely affects the Springboks: as much as his own absence is unfortunate, it is likely to only crank up the workload on their top-ranked player in the position Bismarck du Plessis.
Du Plessis, who has done well in the leadership role for the Super Rugby table-topping Sharks this year, remains the Boks’ undisputed premier figure in the middle of the front row and quite possibly the world’s best in the No 2 jersey as well.
There is an aura about him, much of it attributable to his rare physical strength and intensity in combat, that is hard to replace at Test level, so it is vital that he is safeguarded and deftly managed through to South Africa’s onslaught on the 2015 World Cup.
A gentle reminder of that need to ensure his longevity as a fit and fresh fighter came last week when the Bethlehem-born Bok stalwart turned 30.
Du Plessis has been an integral part, once again, in the Sharks’ staple, revered front row firm in the taxing southern hemisphere competition which also includes Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and his older brother Jannie du Plessis.
The trio, in short, always play an awful lot of rugby together at all levels: probably too much rugby.
All of them could do with a far greater degree of rotation by their franchise, frankly, but Sharks mastermind Jake White has been about as guilty as any other South African Super Rugby head coaching personality in occasionally suggesting that he will offer rests to key customers during the competition, but then not meaningfully carrying out that noble intention.
What tends to happen is that teams either get a great head of steam – as the Sharks have done – so the coach becomes highly reluctant to fiddle with his winning formula, or they experience a bit of a trough period and there is instead pressure to field a full-strength side to try to reverse fortunes in a hurry.
The upcoming June Test window is a rather callous phase of the modern rugby roster, given that it comes smack at a time when Super Rugby is gathering its playoffs-nearing intensity and ludicrously doesn’t even afford so much as a week’s break in the transfer to international combat.
Top Test players then get thrown straight back into the often make-or-break last couple of rounds of Super Rugby’s ordinary season, again without a chance to recharge batteries.
Du Plessis will be one such blue-chip character in high demand across the board in the next few weeks, and the big inconvenience about the Boks’ imminent four-match fixture list is that a proven, capable stand-in for him in the shape of yeoman trooper Strauss is now not available until the Scotland match in Port Elizabeth right at the end of June.
With his own proven Test pedigree (evidenced by 33 caps), knowledge of the pack systems and part in what Heyneke Meyer calls his “senior squad leadership”, Strauss is the perfect sort of player to confidently give a start or two, in the interests of not overburdening Du Plessis, and without compromising the Bok team’s overall strength to any major degree against the potentially only moderate challenges on our soil of Wales and Scotland shortly.
But his costly — and unusual for him — tip tackle offence has put a bit of a spanner in the immediate Bok works, as several other domestic hookers are out of action at present; that crusty character Tiaan Liebenberg of the Stormers might have a good Meyer-fancying fit into plans had he not been in rehabilitation still from an injury.
The call-up of the Bulls’ solid, in-form Callie Visagie to the training squad hardly means he is within a whisker of actual duty in green and gold yet, and some critics have rightly suggested overseas-based Schalk Brits and/or Craig Burden may come closer than he does to Test contention once clear of closing club commitments in England and France respectively this weekend.
Neither of those men, however, boasts anything like the sort of cultural familiarity with the current Bok template that Strauss does.
I fear it means Du Plessis may be on the park for the national cause rather more than initially hoped for throughout June.
At what cost a bit further down the line, perhaps?
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