If anything went well for Saracens in their EDF Energy Cup defeat by the Ospreys two weeks ago – and it is a qualified statement when referring to a 30-3 thrashing – it was the scrummage. "We had nine scrums set, we got three penalties and a free-kick and played from the other five," said Alan Gaffney, the Saracens director of rugby. As the teams make ready for their Heineken Cup rematch at Watford today, it is a comforting thought for Sarries' tight forwards, who share with the rest of the club the accusatory charge that their only consistent quality is their inconsistency.
Not that Saracens' principal tight-head props would admit to seeking a comfort zone. For the club's first Heineken quarter-final Cobus Visagie will start, with Census Johnston backing him up from the bench. The first-named is a 34-year-old born-again Christian from the South African Cape; the other, at 26, is a brand-new father from a Samoan family via New Zealand. They have dozens of Test caps and tick every box on the tight-head's CV of sheet-anchor and troubleshooter. To borrow from Julie Andrews, it's a very good place to start.
Johnston – yes, he was named after New Zealand's 10-year census, which was taking place the day he was born in Auckland in May 1981 – missed the first Ospreys match in Cardiff to be with his fiancée, Chanelle, at the birth of their first child: a daughter, Cree. He has however faced the Ospreys front row before, in a Wales v Pacific Islands Test.
"They're OK," said the 20-stone prop with a penchant for sidesteps and lavish try-scoring. What, Census, you don't rate them? "That's all I can say,"he replied.
Visagie is a traditional tough scrummager who can talk about many subjects, at great length. How as a young man in the university town of Stellenbosch he excelled in many sports but turned to drink and a wild lifestyle when his mother passed away from cancer. How he had a two-year ban for drug-taking overturned in 2001 and cleared his name by proving – with the help of doctors at the Universityof Birmingham – that his body produced abnormal levels of nandrolone during physical activity.
And how his rediscovered faith gave him the motivation to carry on playing rather than retire last summer when an elbow injury robbed him ofthe chance to go with the Springboks to what would turn out to be a triumphant World Cup.
The mission at hand now is to get one over the pride of Ospreylia: a pack of six Wales forwards plus ex-All Blacks in Marty Holah and Filo Tiatia.
"Our pack has scared every opposing team at one time or another but either we have not done it often enough or, when we have done, some other aspect has let us down," Visagie reasoned. "Ospreys didn't start with Duncan Jones or Huw Bennett in the first game, and didn'thave Ian Gough in the second row. Have they put all their cards on the table yet? Have we?
"I've played Tri-Nations games back to back and it's difficult. Players with only one style can't adapt when they meet again; those who can come out on top. Our two hookers have different styles, we know as a pack how to adapt and I think that is one of our weapons.
"Census is the most dynamicprop in world rugby. I've got to do a job in the first phases, to do as much as I can for Census to build on, and run as much as he possibly can with the ball."
Johnston played in the Biarritz side beaten by Munster in the 2006 Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium and he would love a second Cardiff final in May. "We've worked in the scrum this week on getting the right angles for certain plays that we have and generally worked on being dominant.
"The Ospreys have got good-quality backs. If they get the upper hand they will be hardto stop."
Visagie joined Saracens in November 2003 – he will combine playing with coaching next season – and he is pained by the "underachievers" tag. "When I was with Western Province the only aim each season was to be number one. Here they have been too content to aim just for the top four.
"The first season I got here I phoned my father and said I'm officially playing with the worst team I've ever played with inmy life. It's changing and itis better now but we need tokeep winning."Reuse content