Kanko cooked at Kings Park

Ryan Kankowski enjoyed a great start to Vodacom Super Rugby, writes MARK KEOHANE.

Kanko has been the nearly man of South African rugby for so long – and much of the miss has not been his doing.

Coaches, at national, provincial and regional levels, haven’t always accommodated Kankowski’s strengths. Too often the versatile loose forward has been asked to fit into a team pattern or style that hasn’t always suited his play.

Kankowski is a No 8 whose selection can never be made in isolation. If you pick Kankowski to start you have to give him the comfort of a bruising blindside flanker and an equally physical No 6 flanker.

Sharks director of rugby Jake White was absolute in his conviction when starting with Kankowski. He felt his loose trio would be more explosive with Kanko at No 8, especially if he allowed him to play his natural expansive game and did not restrict him to a ball-carrying (taking it into contact) role.

White picked him to start at No 8 because of a certain skill-set and then encouraged him to showcase those skills.

The most encouraging aspect of the Sharks' win against the Vodacom Bulls was just how many players were picked for the right reason and those players were clearly comfortable with their respective roles.

Frans Steyn, at inside centre, looked interested and committed. He wanted the ball and he wanted to dictate the midfield battle against the Bulls' Springbok midfield of Jan Serfontein and JJ Engelbrecht.

Springbok coach and former Bulls mentor Heyneke Meyer would have loved Steyn’s contribution. Equally that of Pat Lambie at flyhalf. Lambie was more lead man than link man. He played flatter and with more aggression and attitude. He took ownership but with the comfort of having Steyn on his outside. Paul Jordaan also ran with purpose. He was picked at No 13 to have a crack, and he did so. The wingers also played with thought and didn’t rely just on pace.

The Sharks looked like they knew what they were doing, especially when they didn’t have the ball.

Individuals prospered and the highlight for me was Kankowski’s performance. This was again a case of a player producing because he had the backing of a coach. White never felt it a risk to play Kankowski, whose Japanese season had ended 10 days earlier. The risk would have been putting Kankowski in a ‘produce or else’ situation. White knew the player needed confidence and not an early season crisis.

White picked Kankowski to start at No 8 because of a certain skill-set and then encouraged him to showcase those skills

The Bulls were predictable but simply not good enough to translate a statistical ball-winning advantage into a winning one.

Francois Hougaard must be allowed to play his natural game at scrumhalf or he must be selected on the wing. He is shackled in the role of a Fourie du Preez clone. He doesn’t have the natural line and box-kicking game of Du Preez. The game plan does him a disservice.

There also needs to be a greater investment in the starting pedigree of flyhalf Handré Pollard. The loose trio also requires more balance. Bigger is not always better.

The Bulls were more competitive than I thought they would be. They’ll only get better with a change in mindset and a change in certain positions.

The Cheetahs were shocking. They showed absolutely no respect for the ball and even less respect for the Lions, who fought bravely. Lions flyhalf Marnitz Boshoff kicked magnificently and made a case to be the regular starter at No 10.

The Cheetahs approach was naive and a home defeat against the Lions is a massive setback to any play-off aspirations. The hosts played like a side whose players believed their own hype. They played exhibition-type rugby and forgot about the basics. I think the nature of the defeat and the identity of the opposition will have a massive bearing on the Cheetahs finishing sixth or 10th.

The Lions deserve all the post-match celebrations. I expect them to win a couple of games at home but certainly didn’t pick them to go to Bloemfontein and steal a last-minute one-point win.

They put as much egg on my face as the Sharks put a smile on the same face, especially the likes of Kankowski, Steyn and Lambie.

I did say the Sharks would beat the Bulls by 15. And as proof of what a leveller this competition is, I also said the Cheetahs would do the Lions by 12.

My return in week one was one from two, but the South African Super Rugby return was decidedly more impressive.

Schalk Burger's final test is endurance, writes Jon Cardinelli

Bleak outlook for Francois Hougaard, writes Ryan Vrede

Photo: Gerhard Duraan/BackpagePix