The individual performances of several big-name players headlined an otherwise uninspiring round of Vodacom Super Rugby, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Cheetahs bombed spectacularly in Brisbane, while the Stormers were inconsistent in their narrow defeat in Christchurch. Back in the Republic, the Bulls and Sharks both secured bonus-point wins without playing particularly clinical rugby, and the Lions defence showed worrying signs of regression.
But let’s not forget what’s really important here. When you put aside your provincial biases and prejudices, it becomes evident that there's only one goal in South African rugby, and that is for the Springboks to do well.
In this respect, there is reason to celebrate after the most recent round of fixtures, as a number of individuals produced performances to savour.
The Cheetahs may have regressed since 2013, but flyhalf Johan Goosen and fullback Willie le Roux continue to improve.
Goosen kept the Cheetahs in touch with the Reds this past Friday through an accurate goal-kicking display, and continues to take good options with ball in hand. Le Roux showed on the Boks’ 2013 end-of-year tour that he can adapt to all weather conditions, and his progress in the tactical kicking and high-ball fielding departments has been patent in recent weeks.
On Saturday in Christchurch, Schalk Burger produced his best showing since making his comeback to rugby in August last year. I said it after Burger's great performance for the Barbarians in December, and I’ll say it again after an outstanding effort against the Crusaders: the flanker that inspired a generation of hard-nosed players can still offer the Boks something in 2014 and 2015.
While Burger is defined by his physical strengths at the breakdown and collisions, he cannot be boxed as a one-dimensional player. This much was evident when he tracked a poor Crusaders kick in the second half of Saturday’s game, drew a couple of defenders, and then found Jean de Villiers with a magic inside pass.
De Villiers showed his class in that moment when he quickly made the decision to chip for team-mate Damian de Allende to chase and score. Burger and De Villiers may be on the wrong side of 30, but continue to prove that when you’re good enough, age is just a number.
Victor Matfield is another case in point. After a gradual reintroduction to Super Rugby, he has started to live up to the standards of old.
Burger and De Villiers may be on the wrong side of 30, but continue to prove that when you’re good enough, age is just a number
Matfield won several lineouts against the throw when the Bulls hosted the Blues this past Saturday, and was industrious around the park. It will take some time before he is physically where he was in 2011, but what’s been clear in the past few games is that he has lost none of his skill and awareness. This is good news for the Boks, who desperately need a No 5 lock of his expertise.
Down in Durban, the Sharks left it late to secure their bonus-point try. They’ve now accumulated 14 out of a possible 15 log points. It’s easy to point out their shortcomings and the areas in which they must improve, but in doing this, you’re bound to realise exactly why they are rated as favourites for the title.
They will grow stronger as a unit as the season unfolds, but it is encouraging to know that they can also rely on a few individuals to win them matches. Willem Alberts was in an abrasive mood at the weekend, producing his best performance since that unforgettable 2013 tour to Europe where he emerged as the Boks’ standout player. Marcell Coetzee and Bismarck du Plessis also got stuck in, while Ryan Kankowski is another player flourishing under the tutelage of Jake White.
Burger and Matfield are likely to make their Test comebacks this June after two years in the international wilderness. Another special player who will be making a long-awaited return is Frans Steyn, and if he manages to carry through his Super Rugby form to the Test arena, the Boks are going to have a formidable weapon at their disposal.
Steyn appears to be relishing his leadership role at the Sharks, and that can only be good for the Boks. While he has always had the X factor, he has worked hard with the renowned visual coach Sherylle Calder in recent weeks to refine his kicking game.
Steyn married vision with execution in the first round when he chipped the ball over the Bulls defence for Odwa Ndungane to chase and score. In the most recent game against the Lions, it was Steyn’s long-range goal-kicking that proved most devastating.
While it will please the Sharks to see Steyn’s progress, it will also please Meyer and the Boks. Not many players can sink penalties from deep within their own half, and as Meyer himself has noted in the past, a player with Steyn’s gifts is always going to make the opposition wary.
The Sharks are still South Africa’s best bet for the title, while the remaining four franchises will struggle to make the play-offs. It would be good to see the Super Rugby trophy returning to South Africa, but ultimately it would be better to see these star players maintaining their fine Super Rugby form into the all-important Test season.
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