Bismarck back to brilliant best

Bismarck du Plessis provided the good-news story for South African rugby this past weekend, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

Du Plessis produced a performance against the Reds in Brisbane that was menacing, imposing and brilliant. It was his best performance of the year and proof of why the Springboks will always be a World Cup threat, despite indifferent South African team performances in Vodacom Super Rugby.

Du Plessis was inspired and inspirational. He has copped criticism this year for lacking leadership and discipline. He was suspended for a month for kicking out at an opponent’s head and he apologised, by means of an official statement, to Sharks and Springbok supporters. The statement, at the time, spoke of Du Plessis’s concession that it was a time for personal reflection and introspection.

Du Plessis, on his return, asked to be stood down as Sharks captain to concentrate exclusively on his individual performance.

It has been a rejuvenated Du Plessis who has played in the last few weeks. Significantly, we’ve seen Du Plessis reach the standards of 2011, when he was easily the best hooker in the world.

Bismarck and brother Jannie are said to have signed for Montpellier in the French Top 14 for the 2015-16 season. Their departure will weaken the Sharks but not the Springboks, as foreign-based players remain available for national selection – and rightly so.

For now the Sharks are infinitely more dangerous when Bismarck du Plessis combines his skill and menace with discipline, especially at the breakdown.

There's no hooker in the game that's more effective in turning over ball. Du Plessis, against the Reds, turned over possession (in favour of the Sharks) six times. It was the kind of statistic usually associated with the game’s best loose forwards.

Du Plessis’s form against the Reds gives Sharks and Springbok supporters’ justifiable optimism but there’s also a lesson in the Du Plessis situation, which is that the best player in a team is not necessarily the best option to captain the team.

Du Plessis battled with the captaincy of the Sharks and his performance lost an edge. The leadership responsibility appeared to affect him because of a desire to do more than was realistically possible. Du Plessis, as captain of the Sharks, played with a strained expression and the results were painful, for Du Plessis and the Sharks coaching staff and supporters.

Du Plessis, on tour with the Sharks, looked less burdened and the aggression was channelled into an intensity that was lethal and legal.

There was even reason for a smile from Du Plessis when earlier in the season all we saw was a frown. His display in Brisbane was the good-news story for South African rugby this weekend.

Collectively the Lions, under Johan Ackermann, added another paragraph to the successful transition of a Lions team more hopeful than hopeless in Super Rugby.

The Lions have been the most balanced of the South African teams. The Stormers have the best pack, among the South African challenge, and SuperSport analyst and former Springbok coach Nick Mallett believes they may even be the best in the competition. But the Stormers don’t have the best halfback combination and they certainly don’t have a back division that's among the leading unit in attack or defence.

The Bulls lost again in New Zealand and gave more proof of their vulnerability than any title-winning prospective value.

More was rightly expected for the Bulls as play-off contenders. Individually there have been quality cameos, from players like Handré Pollard, Jan Serfontein, Pierre Spies, Victor Matfield and Jesse Kriel, but collectively the Bulls have left one feeling more empty than euphoric.

Serfontein’s attacking form is encouraging for the Springboks and Kriel’s natural belief in attacking with the ball more than the use of the boot will add to the attacking quality of the Boks, but the Bulls, as a team, were a disaster when chasing the game against the Chiefs.

The Bulls led 15-3 midway through the first half and lost 34-20 in a match that showed why they aren’t good enough to win the title this season.

No South African team is good enough or has played consistently well enough to be considered good enough. I have written that on several occasions (in this column) this season.

New Zealand, through the Hurricanes, Highlanders and Chiefs, have been a class above any collective South African and Australian challenge.

The Waratahs, in winning their last seven home matches against New Zealand opposition, are also the only team to have beaten the league-leading Hurricanes in New Zealand this season. If not a New Zealand team as champion, then it will again be the 2014 champion Waratahs who will enjoy Super Rugby glory.

There will be no Super Rugby title joy for South Africa, but that doesn’t mean anything come the World Cup – and that in itself is a good-news story.