We asked senior sports writer RYAN VREDE and HSM sports editorial director GARY LEMKE: Who has been South Africa's best player in the league phase of Super Rugby?
VREDE: MORNE STEYN
My thoughts on Steyn as the Springboks flyhalf are well-documented, but I wouldn't allow that to cloud my judgment of him in Super Rugby, where he has been excellent.
Steyn has always been an asset behind a dominant pack and the Bulls' heavies have provided him with the platform that has allowed him to thrive. This wasn't the case in 2012, when their struggles at the gainline compromised their tactical-kicking game, to which Steyn is central. Steyn fell deeper into the pocket in an attempt to circumvent this challenge but this only complicated an already dire situation.
There have been incidents of him dropping into that pocket again this year, but they have been significantly less frequent than they were last season. Their semi-final opponents will strive to pressure him into reverting to that tactic and if they succeed it will bolster their prospects of victory tremendously. Failure to blunt the pack, and in turn, Steyn, means they face an arduous task.
I wrote on Monday that the teams who have kicked often and accurately tactically and defended those kicks well, have succeeded in reaching the top six. Indeed the Bulls and Brumbies, the South African and Australian conference winners respectively, are among the tournament's leaders in tactical kicks on average per match. Steyn has been the team's fulcrum in this regard. Add to that his goal-kicking prowess. He has kicked 86% – the tournament's best success rate. Steyn's contributions from the kicking tee have contributed heavily to a 448-point haul, which is second only to the Chiefs.
Steyn has clearly worked hard at improving his running and distribution game and it would be remiss not to acknowledge the fruits of that labour. He will never be one of the best in these performance areas, but he has been more than adequate. Furthermore, he appears to have recovered his temperament under pressure, although the heat of knock-out rugby will be a better measure of this.
Such is his importance to the Bulls that if he should succumb to injury ahead of the semi-final, the Bulls' challenge would be decidedly diluted, not least because of how it would fracture the confidence of his team-mates.
LEMKE: ADRIAAN STRAUSS
The sight of Adriaan Strauss emerging from a ruck, mouthing an obscenity to go 'looking' for James So'oialo, after the Samoa fullback had grabbed his testicles, was just a snapshot of the commitment and mongrel which the Cheetahs captain brings to any pack.
Never mind it was on Springbok duty; Strauss has given his all for the cause, be it at Super 15 or Test level. He is the heartbeat of everything within the Cheetahs squad and it comes as no surprise that he is playing the best rugby of his career when the Free Staters are enjoying their best season.
He has also become an accomplished captain, someone who knows the game and commands respect on and off the field. Two years ago Bismarck du Plessis was called the best hooker in the world, but now he's not even the best in South Africa. It's not entirely his fault, given his injuries and lay-offs. However, it's equally apparent Strauss has stepped up several levels.
Strauss brings a captain's brain to the contest and he's making the right critical calls in the heat of the moment. He is thriving on his responsibility and is leading by example. Neither Strauss nor Du Plessis will ever take a backwards step and both will bleed for franchise and country. Yet it's in the fine margins where the Free Stater has, for me, emerged at the front of the queue – whether or not that's recognised by the Springbok coach.
However, at Super 15 level he has invigorated the Free State challenge. His presence has helped add the forward grunt to what was always there – the backline flair – and it's no coincidence it has been key to the Cheetahs reaching the play-offs.
Photos: Steve Hagg/Johan Pretorius/Getty Images/Gallo Images
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