Cape Town – The wheel can turn in weird ways in rugby.
Back in the lead-up to South Africa’s seemingly routine enough (on paper) opening fixture of the 2015 World Cup against minnows Japan, beefy blindside flanker Willem Alberts pulled out of Heyneke Meyer’s intended starting line-up after injuring a calf in the captain’s run.
It meant a hasty call-up – fifth cap, but maiden start – for a then 23-year-old Pieter-Steph du Toit, at the time much more accustomed to the lock position and picked primarily in that capacity for the tournament.
Hardly helped by the jaw-dropping, collective misery experienced by the supposed superpower on match-day at Brighton Community Stadium that September 19, Du Toit had a difficult afternoon at No 7.
He earned a modest 4.5/10 in my Springbok ratings card afterwards, which included this diplomatic observation: “No special wow factor … but stuck determinedly enough to his guns.”
Perhaps he got off reasonably lightly because – unusually — several team-mates scored lower marks in the Sport24 exercise than he did, with fours and threes a depressingly common feature.
Even so, Du Toit would have to wait just over another year to revisit the flank role – against England at Twickenham – although he earned several further caps in the interim in the second row.
Nowadays, of course, he is enormously more settled, specialised and acclaimed in the position, and it is a quirky fact that despite the indecision at various times over his most suitable role in between, he will be the lone Bok player starting for a second time against the Japanese at Saitama this Friday, following the no-shocks revelation of the match-day 23 on Tuesday.
Two other regular front-liners in the now-budding Rassie Erasmus era as head coach, Eben Etzebeth and Handre Pollard, were only substitutes in the Brighton debacle; the flyhalf got on in the 58th minute for now-retired Pat Lambie, and the big lock (carrying a niggle at the time, hence his rare bench status) with 11 minutes left for Lood de Jager.
In a reversal of roles between the 2015 and 2019 encounters, Francois Louw started the earlier match at openside flank, Jesse Kriel at outside centre and Tendai Mtawarira at loosehead prop … all three will provide impact, instead, this time.
Already a reasonably stalwart feature of Bok plans at the time, “Beast” was especially disappointing at Brighton, his Sport24 assessment reading (alongside a 3.5/10 rating): “Particularly innocuous … turned over in an early carry, and the bug just spread through ranks. Struggled for real scrum oomph, too.”
The Mtawarira of today, even at a ripe old 34, has been cutting an entirely more rejuvenated, urgent figure this season and should be extremely motivated, whenever he appears on Friday, to both set the record straight result-wise and place more pressure on the incumbent of the No 1 shirt, Steven Kitshoff.
For a second time on the trot against these foes, fellow-prop Trevor Nyakane is confined to the splinters although he has become an assertive tighthead nowadays and was the designated loosehead replacement in the 2015 tussle, replacing Mtawarira in the 54th minute.
So although eight members of the current Bok squad — gearing for RWC 2019 and getting this “warm-up” opportunity to spiritedly avenge the earlier Japan upset — featured in the match-day group in Brighton, that only means 34.78 percent of Friday’s equivalent Bok arsenal are at risk of still being haunted by the 2015 howler through their presences in it.
That will be some comfort for Bok supporters fervently wishing that, against the Brave Blossoms, lightning doesn’t strike twice.
De Jager is a ninth present squad member to have been on the park in East Sussex four years ago, but he is not among Friday’s 23 as RG Snyman is preferred as the reserve lock.
A little ironically, the beanpole De Jager earned premier Bok rating in Brighton of 6.5/10, with the comment: “Consistently industrious in tight-loose, and lovely athleticism for tearaway try.”
Bok fans will be anticipating ratings of at least thereabouts, and loftier too, for plenty of green-and-gold personnel this time around …
Here is the Bok starting XV for the Saitama encounter, with the corresponding player in each jersey from the 2015 game reflected in brackets:
15 Willie le Roux (Zane Kirchner), 14 Cheslin Kolbe (Bryan Habana), 13 Lukhanyo Am (Jesse Kriel), 12 Damian de Allende (Jean de Villiers), 11 Makazole Mapimpi (Lwazi Mvovo), 10 Handre Pollard (Pat Lambie), 9 Faf de Klerk (Ruan Pienaar), 8 Duane Vermeulen (Schalk Burger), 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit (same), 6 Siya Kolisi (Francois Louw), 5 Franco Mostert (Victor Matfield), 4 Eben Etzebeth (Lood de Jager), 3 Frans Malherbe (Jannie du Plessis), 2 Malcolm Marx (Bismarck du Plessis), 1 Steven Kitshoff (Tendai Mtawarira).
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing