DURBAN – The oldest cliché in rugby holds that the game is “won and lost up front”, and quite rightly so because if a team goes backwards in this department, the disadvantage reverberates all the way though the team to the fullback.
It is why the Pumas this week will be fearing the Springboks ahead of their Rugby Championship match in Salta because of the incredible depth the South Africans have in the front row.
This was the one area where the Argentinians were historically strong but in recent years their strength has become a weakness.
The tight-knit “Bajada” scrum has disappeared into folklore and now the set scrum is an area where opposition teams target the Pumas.
Front row strength was also traditionally a strength in South African rugby but for much of the professional era the Boks have more or less marked time in this department or, indeed, been inferior.
Not anymore. The Springboks have re-established their old strength and coach Rassie Erasmus now boasts two equally strong and interchangeable front rows that can attack the opposition for the entire 80 minutes of the game.
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This relentless power up front was illustrated perfectly in Wellington in the Rugby Championship match when the “back-up” front row came on late in the game and immediately won scrum penalties that gave the Boks opportunities to stage the comeback that earned them the draw.
An enduring recollection of that game was the furious, almost desperate, performance by Tendai Mtawarira when he came on for Steven Kitshoff. The latter has leapfrogged The Beast as the No 1 loosehead prop, and Mtawarira knows it.
Hence the energy and determination from The Beast when he came on as a substitute.
Equally, nobody will deny the impact Bongi Mbonambi makes when he comes on for Malcolm Marx, and what about the sensational impact made by Trevor Nyakane when he replaces Frans Malherbe?
Against Australia in Johannesburg, Erasmus started with Mtawarira, Mbonambi and Nyakane, and with his first-choice front row in Wellington overcoming jet lag ahead of the All Blacks match, the Bok coach could still bring on quality in Vincent Koch, Schalk Brits and Lizo Gqoboka.
The latter is a classic South African rugby success story. At high school in Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape he did not play rugby and concentrated on athletics (running 100m in 11.6 seconds) and soccer.
He only started playing rugby aged 19 when he moved to Durban to study and joined Durban Collegians.
He started off playing as a No 8 and a lock, but eventually moved to prop.
However we look at it, Erasmus has superb riches in the front row and it is in this area that he will target the Pumas and, later, the World Cup opposition.
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