Springboks turn to little Brussow to fill Burger's big boots

Flanker with penchant for getting up opponents' noses is picked by for first Test
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The Independent Online

Heinrich Brussow, a small man who happens to have been the biggest pain the rear end yet encountered by the British and Irish Lions on this tour, was yesterday fast-tracked into the Springboks' starting line-up for this weekend's opening Test in Durban. The ball-winning flanker from the Free State, spectacularly effective when the Lions played in Bloemfontein 12 days ago, replaces Schalk Burger, one of the iconic figures in modern South African rugby. Burger has not recovered from a calf injury.

Called in late by the Springbok hierarchy, Brussow has beaten the Blue Bulls forward Danie Rossouw to the back-row vacancy. Rossouw, who played No 8 against England in the 2007 World Cup final and made a major contribution by pulling off a try-saving tackle on Mark Cueto, will sit on the bench.

Ian McGeechan, the Lions head coach, will not exactly be performing cartwheels at the sudden appearance of Brussow as the Springboks' ball-winner-in-chief. McGeechan was less than impressed by some of the flanker's tactics in Bloemfontein; indeed, he took the view that many of the turnovers Brussow inflicted on the tourists at the breakdown were wholly illegal. Alarmed at the way Wayne Barnes, the English referee, officiated at the tackle area – the two men had a very sharp difference of opinion in the aftermath of the Free State fixture – he will make doubly sure of conveying his views to the Test referee, Bryce Lawrence of New Zealand, in the run-up to Saturday's all-important game.

On the face of it, the diminutive Brussow, capped once off the bench by his country thus far, might be dismissed as a poor man's Burger. Certainly, he has only a tiny profile compared with the celebrated Western Province man, whose buccaneering style at the breakdown quickly made him one of the most respected, not to say feared, loose forwards in the international game.

But Brussow has been a major contributor at provincial level for some time. As John Smit, the Springbok captain, said only last week: "Many times, I have played against the Free State Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and been in tears on the Sunday morning because of Brussow. He is about 4ft tall and was born to win the ball three inches from the grass."

As expected, Smit will play at tight-head prop rather than hooker, the position he filled when leading the Boks to the world title two years ago. Some, not least the Free State coach Naka Drotske – a front-rower against the Lions in the last Test series here in 1997 – believe this will prove a "fault line" in the Springbok pack, but Peter de Villiers, the South Africans' head coach, is wholly convinced his captain will absorb whatever the Lions throw at him in the scrum.

Frans Steyn, more familiar to the British Isles audience as a big-kicking midfielder, will start at full-back in the absence of the injured Conrad Jantjes. It had been thought that J P Pietersen might be asked to perform the No 15 duties, but Steyn's prodigious ability with the boot gives the Boks a serious attacking weapon. Any loose kick to the Kwazulu-Natal player around halfway could easily be returned with interest in the form of a drop goal.

The other position under intense discussion was outside-half, where the Super 14 form of the uncapped Blue Bulls No 10 Morne Steyn established him as a late candidate for the role. Instead, the unpredictable De Villiers has reasserted his faith in Ruan Pienaar, whose obvious gifts as a footballing half-back had to be balanced against a worrying lack of recent rugby. The son of Gysie Pienaar, the full-back who proved such a thorn in the Lions' flesh on the unsuccessful 1980 tour, he has had only 50 minutes of competitive activity in two months.

Needless to say, there was no debate whatsoever around the make-up of the Springbok engine room. The best second-row partnership in the world game – Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield – will be together again at King's Park, winning their 56th and 81st caps respectively. All told, the South Africans will start the game with more than 700 caps between them.

South Africa Test team v British & Irish Lions

F Steyn (Sharks); J P Pietersen (Sharks), A Jacobs (Sharks), J de Villiers (Stormers), B Habana (Bulls); R Pienaar (Sharks), F du Preez (Bulls); T Mtawarira (Sharks), B du Plessis (Sharks), J Smit (Sharks), B Botha (Bulls), V Matfield (Bulls), H Brussow (Cheetahs), J Smith (Cheetahs), P Spies (Bulls).

Replacements: G Steenkamp (Bulls), D Carstens (Sharks), A Bekker (Stormers), D Rossouw (Bulls), E Januarie (Stormers), J Fourie (Lions), M Steyn (Bulls).