Cheetahs lineout kingpin Lood de Jager hopes to make a statement when he faces the much-vaunted Stormers second row of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
De Jager was one of the Springboks' standout players at the 2015 World Cup. Last week, the 23-year-old lock was voted South Africa's Player of the Year for the 2015 season.
In a recent interview with SA Rugby magazine, De Jager confirmed that he had set himself some lofty goals for the 2016 season. Now that Victor Matfield has retired, De Jager intends to make the Bok No 5 jersey his own.
Of course, there is another talented 23-year-old lock who has the same ambition. Pieter-Steph du Toit was outstanding in the Stormers' win against the Bulls last Saturday. If Du Toit maintains that standard over the next three months, the new Bok coach will have a tough choice to make regarding his starting No 5.
De Jager will go up against Etzebeth and Du Toit in Bloemfontein on Saturday. Since the Cheetahs and Stormers will play each other twice during the conference stage, the young locks may meet again at Newlands on 28 May.
De Jager told SA Rugby magazine that these match-ups should bring the best out of both sets of locks. All three Bok players will be looking to prove a point.
'Eben and Pieter-Steph are two very special athletes,' De Jager said. 'Pieter-Steph’s work rate is immense, and Eben’s physicality is always influential.
'However, when we square up against one another in Super Rugby, there will be no quarter given. I’m looking forward to the Cheetahs vs Stormers battles this year. We are the best three locks in South Africa at the moment, and we are all very competitive by nature.'
The Cheetahs are coming off a 34-33 loss to the Jaguares in round one. While they will be looking for a sharper showing at the lineout, they will be hoping for more of the same at the scrum. Last Friday, the Cheetahs put the Jaguares, who boast some of the best scrummagers in world rugby, under a lot of pressure at this set piece.
The Stormers went one better in Cape Town when they used a superior set piece to create point-scoring opportunities. Afterwards, head coach Robbie Fleck revealed that the Stormers had made some key changes in the pre-season.
On Monday, forwards coach Russell Winter elaborated on the small tweaks that appear to have made a big difference.
'We've focused on the basic principles,' he said. 'We've worked a lot on our lifting, getting the players up there to compete at the lineout.
'It helps that we have such explosive players at our disposal. Eben was fantastic at the front of the lineout against the Bulls. Pieter-Steph was very good, as was JD Schickerling when he came on in the second half.
'We have tried to be creative, to ensure that we vary our play [between mauling and using the ball off the top]. We want to retain the element of surprise, because we believe that makes us dangerous.'
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