Rugby Union: Boks tinker as Scots opt to re-order in bulk

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The Independent Online
IF THE South Africans are in search of perfection, the Scots are in search of a side. Nick Mallett and Jim Telfer, the respective national coaches who confront each other at Murrayfield on Saturday, may have shared a rare patch of common ground yesterday by taking the slaughterman's blade to some sacred cows, but their motives were very different.

Mallett's decision to give Andre Venter, that blond bombshell of a Free State flanker, an unexpected heave-ho smacked of fine tuning while Telfer's abrupt dismissal of Rob Wainwright, his captain as recently as last summer, had an air of desperation about it.

Mallett has made absolute virtues of selectorial consistency and player loyalty since taking over the Bokke reins fromCarel du Plessis 14 months ago and that steadfast approach has been rewarded with a record-breaking run of Test victories - a neat average of one a month - as well as a Tri- Nations clean sweep. However, the unsatisfactory nature of his team's narrow victory over Wales at Wembley last Saturday has persuaded him to tinker with his back row and midfield line-ups.

Strange to relate the victims are Venter, the opportunist scorer of a slightly fortunate winning try in the first minute of injury time, and Franco Smith, who loses his place at inside centre despite claiming 13 points with his right boot. Bobby Skinstad, the Western Province golden boy, makes his long-predicted move from replacements' bench to open-side flank while Christian Stewart, a late tour replacement for the injured Pieter Muller, gets a chance among the threequarters.

According to the coach, the decision-making process caused him no end of torment. The relegation of Smith, himself a fill-in for Muller, will have caused him no great soul-searching, but Venter, a virtual ever-present since his debut against the All Blacks in 1996, must have tugged at his heartstrings. Still, it will be an education to watch Skinstad in his first Test start.

Widely described as the most brilliant footballing talent produced by South Africa in a decade and more - the 22-year-old student is a stunning seven-a-side artist - he will add pace and verve to the Springbok loose trio. "Bobby is a game-breaker and he is also the form loose forward in South Africa," Mallett explained. "He has knocked the door down by playing so well and I feel this is an opportunity to see what he can provide in terms of continuity. I suppose I just had to find a place for him."

There was a time when Wainwright, a senior Lion in South Africa last year, brought similar qualities to the equation, but Telfer clearly believes respect and experience to be less useful than pure size, with the Scots in one of their usual pre-Christmas flat periods, struggling to generate interest among spectators as well as momentum among themselves. Peter Walton, the formidably-constructed Newcastle flanker, takes Wainwright's place in a 22-man squad - contrary to new International Board regulations the Scots will not name a starting 15 until tomorrow - while John Leslie and Kenny Logan come in for Tony Stanger and Rowen Shepherd among the backs.

"Since we played our last Test in Australia we have lost two of our heaviest forwards, Matthew Proudfoot and Gordon Simpson, to injury," said Telfer, who watched his charges crack under some traditional New Zealand Maori pressure at Murrayfield last weekend. "Walton has bulk and, moreover, he is abrasive." He will need to be.

Changes were afoot in Dublin, too, although the prospect of tomorrow's World Cup qualifying match with Romania at Lansdowne Road was not quite as chilling as an eyeball-to-eyeball set-to with 15 Grand Slam-chasing Boks.

Darragh O'Mahony, a natural if under-sized wing from Bedford, replaces Kevin Maggs, an unnatural and over-sized wing from Bath, while Ciaran Scally, a hot new scrum-half from University College Dublin, gets his first start ahead of Conor McGuinness.

There is, however, no place for Keith Wood, who would be good enough for any World XV but has yet to be fully forgiven by the Irish selectors for holding out against a promotional clause in his international contract. Allen Clarke, recently of Northampton but now of Dungannon, plays at hooker while his esteemed compatriot languishes on the bench.