Is history going to awkwardly repeat itself when the Springboks tackle Scotland in the final Test of the June internationals in Port Elizabeth on Saturday?
By: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
It is a question well worth asking because South Africa – minus Francois Louw, as they will be again – were outwitted at the breakdown when the unsung Scots last visited our soil in 2013 and were much better value in their 30-17 defeat at Mbombela Stadium than the scoreboard suggested.
The visitors had led by 11 points at one stage and the Boks only really put the game to bed with the last move of the match, substitute Jan Serfontein’s converted try giving the eventual margin of triumph a gloss it didn’t deserve.
It was broadly acknowledged by senior Bok personnel afterwards that they had been run so close largely because of the Scots’ superior tenacity and cunning in the battle on the deck.
Bath-based Louw, the Boks’ regular No 6 flank, had been released from that particular fixture to get married, and it was certainly one reason the overwhelming favourites laboured in that department.
A year later, and Louw will ominously be an absentee against these opponents again, this time because the game falls outside the agreed window – in New Zealand and Australia, Super Rugby matches resume next weekend — and the Boks have had to release seven squad members who are attached to either French or English clubs.
It will inevitably bring back under the critical microscope coach Heyneke Meyer’s selection disaffection with Cheetahs open-side dynamo Heinrich Brussow, who earned a spot in an enlarged training squad ahead of the June internationals but then didn’t crack the slightly more condensed party for the games themselves.
Brussow still has a firm fan club, especially given lingering memories of his epic performances against the All Blacks in the 2009 Tri-Nations-winning season.
Instead it looks as though one of Marcell Coetzee or the versatile Schalk Burger will be asked to start at No 6 in the Friendly City, even if neither is a true specialist as a scavenger.
Siya Kolisi of the Stormers is also a consideration for the berth, although he has mostly been nursing lingering niggles this season and not produced nearly the calibre of rugby he did in 2013.
Coetzee was in the starting loose trio that experienced a “difficult” day against Scotland last June, along with rookie Arno Botha (he was forced off early with damaged knee ligaments) and Pierre Spies.
Kolisi hastily took the place of Botha and played impressively, although more in a ball-carrying and tackling role than for stealing possession at the breakdown, where the Scots ruled the roost.
Sharks stalwart Coetzee has looked a more rounded player in the No 6 jersey in their big push for Super Rugby honours this year, and clearly worked hard to become a better poacher; the 23-year-old’s range of other attributes is hardly in doubt.
He ought to be hungry for game-time after a few idle weeks, although he did return from a shoulder injury to play the late-May derby against the Stormers at Kings Park, where the Sharks suffered a damaging last-gasp defeat.
A potential complication for the Boks is that first-choice hooker Bismarck du Plessis is among several key players well overdue for a week off; he had to put in another exhausting shift in the dramatic 31-30 victory over Wales at Nelspruit.
He came off 14 minutes before the end, to be replaced by Schalk Brits, although the mobile Saracens star is now among the ineligible players for the Scotland game.
At least the experienced Adriaan Strauss is available again after rare suspension and been a welcome infusion to the now more lightweight squad – the Cheetahs captain may even be fast-tracked to a start as he knows Bok systems so well after 33 caps for the cause and reputation as a world-class player in his own right.
But if Du Plessis is either rested altogether or curtailed to the bench in PE, an inconvenience is that it robs the Boks of another muscular, highly alert factor in ball-pinching …