Sport24 chief writer
- The Kitshoff-Marx-Koch front row “Bomb Squad” was a celebrated tool in the RWC 2019 final: personnel have fully changed for Sydney.
- Both Kitshoff and Marx earning starting duties instead against the Wallabies on Saturday is a chance they should gleefully seize.
- Ox Nche, the more common occupier of the No 1 jersey this year, now tries his hand again at injecting impact value.
Just how much more does Steven Kitshoff treasure yanking a Springbok No 1 shirt over his broad shoulders than a familiar alternative one … with No 17 on it?
Saturday’s Rugby Championship clash with Australia at Sydney Football Stadium (11:35 SA time) should offer key clues … and potentially even develop into a deepening, short- to medium-term conundrum.
The experienced loosehead prop and inaugural United Rugby Championship-winning Stormers captain earns his 65th cap against the Wallabies, as the Boks try desperately to halt a two-game mini-rot in the results column.
But it will also mark the first time this year that the “Spicy Plum” starts a Test: the national team’s seventh of 2022.
While the World Cup holders have a stronger philosophy than most international rivals for seeing the game genuinely as a 23-player one – their “Bomb Squad” of potent impact substitutes earned a fame all of their own at RWC 2019 – Kitshoff is bound to relish this reasonably rare opportunity to get stuck in from the outset.
Why wouldn’t he?
The 30-year-old has been largely viewed as a core element of the Bomb Squad since the World Cup in Japan: evidenced by only four starts and 20 appearances off the splinters from the beginning of that jamboree to now.
His last earning of the No 1 jersey was almost a year ago, when he had that role in the agonising, after-the-siren 28-26 Gold Coast defeat (12 September) to the very same Wallabies.
Subsequently, his forceful leg drive and scrummaging sturdiness – how often do you ever see him crumple in a reverse-gear heap? – have always been used off the bench, even if that has occasionally featured a call to action before the halftime whistle has sounded.
So Kitshoff cannot be said to have been under-deployed.
Yet there is a certain intrigue, too, to what has become – for this key date against an Aussie side seeking a fourth consecutive victory over the Boks – a “swap-around” this weekend of roles between Kitshoff and Ox Nche.
The latter has already enjoyed three starts in the calendar year at loosehead (there have also been two for Trevor Nyakane and one for similarly versatile Thomas du Toit) but now has his own sampling of Bomb Squad duty.
Renowned for pleasing mobility, smart hands and ton-of-bricks tackling when the mood grabs him, the slightly more youthful (27) Nche seems just as likely to shine at the back end of matches as he does the front.
The advantage of being a starter, of course, is that you have a better chance of earning a thicker slice of the match action if you are having a rousing outing: both Kitshoff and Nche will be cognisant of that.
But when Bongi Mbonambi, inconveniently side-lined at present by injury, is available for selection, the Bok brains trust seem seduced by the idea of pairing him with Nche – given their awkward, low respective centres of gravity – for scrummaging purposes at the outset.
Doubling the front-row interest in Sydney on Saturday, then, is Kitshoff getting reunited with Malcolm Marx as his nearest scrum-down ally in the initial XV.
The strapping hooker has been one of the brightest senior Bok performers in this up-and-down season, whether as starter or impact-giver … and that fluid situation over his role, in itself, has sparked fiery debate in recent weeks.
It will be the first time since the RWC 2019 opener against New Zealand (their lone 23-13 stumble en route to the crown) that Kitshoff and Marx share starting responsibilities for the national team.
By the end of that tournament, both had significantly transitioned, in the minds of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, into explosive Bomb Squaders – roles that have largely persistent since, in each instance.
The vigour they brought off the bench in the memorable final against England was a pivotal factor, it was widely acknowledged, in the 32-12 outcome.
Additionally, Vincent Koch brought a “no let-up” element at tighthead in that showpiece once he replaced Frans Malherbe.
It so happens that the admirably consistent, English-based Koch gets a break from duty this weekend, as veteran Nyakane takes over the back-up tighthead chore in Sydney.
That means the entire Kitshoff-Marx-Koch bench alliance from that sublime Yokohama date in 2019 are not among Saturday’s Bomb Squad against the Wallabies, though two now have invitingly higher status for the clash.
It may be too early to jump to conclusions about whether we have reached a radical, near “all change” point (though Malherbe as premier No 3 is a status-quo situation) in Bok front-row thinking.
For one thing, once Mbonambi returns to fitness soon, he and Marx should sew up the match-day requirements once more in their highly specialist department very securely.
They’re a clear jump above the rest, whichever way around they are fielded on any given Test day.
At loosehead, however, there will be more of a cat-among-the-pigeons picture emerging if Kitshoff sparkles against the Wallabies in this return to starter status.
Perhaps the key, really, is just not to overthink things too much in the heart of the Springbok boiler room?
Blessed with a bulging cupboard of top-notch resources, the balance between recognising best options and ensuring healthy, team-benefiting rotation is a tough, delicate one for Nienaber and company.
The last thing they need in an area of such renowned bright light is a thickening, counterproductive fog over selections.
15 Reece Hodge, 14 Tom Wright, 13 Len Ikitau, 12 Hunter Paisami, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Noah Lolesio, 9 Nic White, 8 Rob Valetini, 7 Fraser McReight, 6 Jed Holloway; 5 Matt Philip, 4 Rory Arnold; 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Folau Fainga’a, 1 James Slipper (captain)
Substitutes: 16 David Porecki, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Darcy Swain, 20 Rob Leota, 21 Pete Samu, 22 Jake Gordon, 23 Andrew Kellaway
15 Willie le Roux, 14 Canan Moodie, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Jaden Hendrikse, 8 Jasper Wiese, 7 Franco Mostert, 6 Siya Kolisi (captain), 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Substitutes: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Kwagga Smith, 20 Duane Vermeulen, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Warrick Gelant
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