Cape Town – There’s a certain cruelty to the fact that rookie flyhalf Jean-Luc du Plessis gave the Stormers some invigorating thrust in a comfortable 46-19 triumph over the Sunwolves on the very day Kurt Coleman had surgery to mend a dreaded “ACL” in the knee.
The luckless Coleman, who had just begun to look settled and assured in the No 10 jersey for himself before his season-ending training mishap, tweeted twice (@kurtcoleman10) on Friday about his operation.
First he said: “All prepped and ready for surgery! Thank you for all the kind wishes.”
Then some eight hours later, accompanied by the obligatory thumbs-up picture from a hospital bed: “Sore and tired but the operation was a success. Now for lots of rest and recovery. Thanks for all the love.”
The latter mini-missive at least contained some silver linings for supporters in a few weeks in which the Stormers lost both their intended 2016 senior pivots – the other Robert du Preez – to long-term injuries, although Du Preez has a chance of returning to action should they make the playoffs phase, a massively increasing likelihood.
So there was dual reason for everyone at Newlands on Friday night to train eyes extremely closely and anxiously on the maiden start for the 21-year-old Du Plessis: not just to see whether he looks like cutting the mustard at Vodacom Super Rugby level for the next few weeks, but for traces of the legendary “Du Plessis genes” at the famous old ground.
Well, we probably got more than just traces of the all-Springbok and conspicuous glory-era Western Province firm of Carel, his father, and uncles Michael and Willie: it was more of a firm stamp, really.
In short, the left-footed playmaker was obviously, understandably raw … but riveting in rather stronger measure.
It only took a few minutes for connoisseurs to realise a key attribute: he is a quite natural “footballer”, even if that word may always seem a little baffling to devotees of a game played with an oval, eccentrically-bouncing ball.
Speaking of strange bounce, Du Plessis, right on full time, provided a fitting cherry on top of a loose but also pleasingly fast and free-spirited performance from the home franchise – they dotted seven tries to three – by dribbling the ball onward a few times ahead of a cool gather-up for the closing score.
Earlier in the game, the mild Pat Lambie lookalike (it would be a closer resemblance if he were clean-shaven) was directly responsible for teeing up two other tries courtesy of crisp, classy final passes to respectively Kobus van Wyk and the night’s standout loose forward dynamo, Sikhumbuzo Notshe.
The speed, weighting and vision of his off-loading probably amounted to the most satisfying string to his bow against the extremely dapper but outgunned Japanese side, and no less a figure than SuperSport pundit and former Bok No 10 general Naas Botha noted enthusiastically: “He set up a number of players with excellent passes.”
if there were down sides they included a so-so record off the tee – five out of nine – and moments of defensive confusion as he gradually got to grips with the game at a level largely still foreign to him.
But confusion doesn’t mean lack of conviction; there were also moments when he put his sturdy enough frame to good use as a stopping device and Nick Mallett was able to praise his “good physicality … he’s clearly not scared to tackle.”
Du Plessis also produced some clever, cheeky dinks and his kick-offs were more often than not on the button, allowing for fierce competing from advancing Stormers forwards in those situations.
He also changed the direction of play in a jiffy at times with much of the instinct and finesse that marked his swerving, gracefully stepping father and more single-minded, short-fused and sometimes wonderfully maverick uncle Michael.
Expect the Stormers to be well less cavalier on attack when they tackle the Lions in Johannesburg next week, a game where the young pivot’s composure, option-taking and tactical kicking will be more rigorously tested – he may also have to prove that he can land tricky place-kicks under greater scoreboard pressure.
Yet this was a hugely heartening baptism for Du Plessis, given the hasty-promotion circumstances for him, and the type of playmaker he is gives the Stormers something of a genuine flair element at ten that has seldom been prevalent in their Super Rugby history, when you put your mind to it properly.
Their No 10s over the years have often been less subtle men prepared to take the ball close to the enemy traffic, like Braam van Straaten and Peter Grant, or others whose main strength lay in place- and tactical kicking accuracy – Louis Koen and much more recently the diminutive Demetri Catrakilis generally fell into that category.
It will be a while yet, and several altogether more taxing fixtures, before we can make a definitive judgement, but Jean-Luc du Plessis already offers up suggestions of something tantalisingly different.
Could he be the missing link that properly sparks the Stormers’ sought-after renaissance as “Province rugby” entertainers?
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing