Bok locks face interesting challenge

Pieter-Steph du Toit (Gallo)
Pieter-Steph du Toit (Gallo)

Johannesburg - The two Springboks in the Stormers second row engine room will get a good foretaste of the pressure they may face against France in a few weeks from now when they front the Cape team’s lineout challenge against the Cell C Sharks at Kings Park on Saturday.

According to the supersport.com website, on current form Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit should be the anticipated lock pairing for the Boks against France – although Lood de Jager did partner Etzebeth quite a lot last year – and few would quibble with that judgement, as they are among the most highly rated forwards in Vodacom Super Rugby. However, bizarre though it may seem, the Stormers lineout hasn’t functioned particularly well this season, and their coach Robbie Fleck listed it as one of his team’s “work-ons” before the recent tour of New Zealand.

It was one of the aspects that started coming right though for the Stormers in the matches against the Kiwi teams, and Fleck listed that phase of the game as one of the reasons he was happy after last week’s win over the Blues. The improvement was not before time, however, as the Stormers are still languishing down in 12th position when it comes to the lineout statistics for the season so far.

The Sharks by contrast are top, and with the Durban team basing so much around their first phase platform, the Stormers will be leaving heavily on their two locks to do the business against a lineout formation that has varied options, particularly when both the Du Preez twins, Dan and Jean-Luc, are playing.

It may not be quite as simple as blunt the Sharks’ first phase and you have the match one, but it is pretty close to it, and the Stormers will know that as they fly up the coast on Friday for Saturday’s final big match before they go into the June recess.

The Stormers coaching staff won’t be too surprised at the lineout success of the Sharks this season. Ruan Botha was highly regarded in the Cape and they weren’t pleased when Botha decided to move to Durban when Pieter-Steph du Toit decided to swap the black of the Sharks for the navy blue of the Stormers.

It was understandable that Botha, a former age-group star, should want to move when Du Toit, who was ahead of him in the Springbok pecking order, was lured to Cape Town. However, the Stormers would like to have had three good locks to choose from, which is in fact what the Sharks have now. Etienne Oosthuizen, Botha and Stephan Lewies have proved interchangeable through the season, and it has created an easy situation for coach Robert du Preez to manage.

“We have been fortunate that in almost every game we have had myself, Stephan and Ruan available and we have settled into a routine where, while we are always pushing each other, rotation can also take place without the lineout skipping a beat,” said Oosthuizen, who will be achieving his landmark 50th cap in the derby against the Stormers.

“We also have loose-forwards that are all tall enough to take lineout ball and that gives us an advantage over most other teams. We have so many options.”

Indeed they do, and all three have also contributed handsomely to a much improved performance in all-round play from the Sharks forwards this season. Oosthuizen’s little back-flip pass that led to a crucial try against the Sunwolves last week was an example of the silky skills that have been developed.

“The forward battle between these teams (in derby matches) is always hyped up but the modern game is very much 15 against 15. Each individual has to do his part and you have to make it count. That is something we have been working very hard on all season,” said the lock.

As good as Oosthuizen has been in helping the Sharks get a winning edge on the field, there have been times that he has let the team down with his discipline, albeit that he has sometimes been unfortunate. One occasion when he may have been unlucky was when the Sharks had what could have been a decisive try disallowed because of a debatable and, certainly Durban fans would say so, relatively minor transgression from Oosthuizen.

That was against the Lions at Ellis Park in the last big derby that the Sharks played, and it should be good news for Sharks fans that the lock appears to have been thinking about it and is determined not to be provoked by the Stormers forwards in what is sure to be a match with plenty of needle.

“They like to impose themselves and get under our skin, so for us standing up to the Stormers pack is going to be about controlled aggression. You do not want to be carded in a game like this. You just have to keep your head as an individual and as a team maintain composure and let the game unfold. Ultimately what matters is what the scoreboard says, not the outcome of personal battles.”

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