Cape Town - It is effectively the first widespread “Springbok trial” of World Cup year.
Lions v Bulls in Johannesburg and Sharks v Stormers in Durban on Saturday: all four home-based Super Rugby franchises involved in a pair of full-blooded derbies.
As much as he will be anxious for major injuries to stay away - slightly forlorn hope, maybe? - Bok head coach Rassie Erasmus will be watching certain match-ups with special zeal.
Here’s a selection of just four, two from each contest:
Elton Jantjies (Lions) v Handre Pollard (Bulls)
Just ahead of the Super Rugby season, devoted flyhalf/kicking guru Vlok Cilliers told me he fancied Pollard and Jantjies, in that order, were some way clear of any others as top two at this point in Erasmus’s No 10 plans for this critical year.
Little has changed since the campaign began to suggest he is wide of the mark: both have hit the ground pleasingly running.
So against that backdrop, the pair going head to head on Saturday - and with their slightly contrasting styles - is a particularly enticing prospect.
They will have strong leadership responsibilities in the Highveld derby, into the bargain: Pollard assumes the Bulls’ captaincy with Lood de Jager injured, while Jantjies remains the Lions’ deputy on the day despite Malcolm Marx filling Warren Whiteley’s shoes as their skipper for the first time.
The clash should be a very tight one, so their respective accuracies off the tee may well be influential; Pollard led the points-scoring in the competition after two rounds with 32, indicating his particularly conspicuous form in that department.
But this meeting is at Jantjies’ favourite stomping ground, where his subtle, silky skills so often come into play for the Lions, and it is unlikely the host franchise will deviate from their fast-paced, ball-in-hand attacking game which suits the left-footed pivot so well.
Malcolm Marx (Lions) v Schalk Brits (Bulls)
Erasmus has generally steered clear of major criticism for his Bok squad/team picks thus far, but one that has ruffled some feathers - inevitably, considering his unusually advanced age - is that of the well-travelled, eternally effervescent Brits among his arsenal of hookers.
Brits, who will be 38 in May, has kept younger customers like the Sharks’ popular Akker van der Merwe out of the mix, to the ire of many Durban people in particular, but if he shines in this tussle with the brawny Bok first choice Marx, it will go a long way to routing the knockers.
While Van der Merwe and Bongi Mbonambi locking horns in Durban is another good ‘un at No 2 this weekend, Marx v Brits arguably catches the eye more because of the intriguing clash of both styles and physiques.
Marx is the bigger “rumbler” of the pair, with his strength on the drive and use of those vast shoulders over the ball at the breakdown, but what Brits concedes on the scale (at least 15kg) he makes up with his still-admirable athleticism and stepping skills - already the impact of his vast experience at Loftus is being hailed, too.
That said, Brits
and company in the visitors’ front row may come under pressure at scrum-time,
where Marx and his props, Dylan Smith and Carlu Sadie, should fancy their
chances of applying significant heat ...
Ruan Botha (Sharks) v JD Schickerling (Stormers)
There is a pretty well-stocked frontline tier of Bok locks, when you consider the attractive World Cup credentials of Messrs Etzebeth, De Jager, Mostert and Snyman just for starters.
But Erasmus will also be working with some gusto on his next-in-line options in a berth where the physical demands of the job can be murderous and injury rates high as a result.
So in some senses we will be watching an SA ‘A’ kind of scrap at No 5 at Kings Park, between respective tall trees Botha (2.04m) and Schickerling (2.03m).
The latter is some four years younger at 23, and Erasmus gave some hints of his regard for his potential by including him in his broader squad for the 2018 end-of-year tour.
But that shouldn’t mean that Botha, a former Stormers employee, is out of the picture by any means: he is a powerful specimen to go with his height gifts, and will be part of a Sharks eight anticipating physical mastery of a visiting pack still missing the services of injured loose-head ace Steven Kitshoff.
Dan du Preez (Sharks) v Sikhumbuzo Notshe (Stormers)
Hello ... will this game virtually be a re-run of the Currie Cup final, which still seems like yesterday? In certain ways, yes.
On that occasion, more specifically on October 27 at Newlands last year, several Sharks players were smarting before kick-off at the knowledge already that they weren’t making the cut for the Boks’ European tour: very much included were the Du Preez loose forward twins, Jean-Luc and Dan.
By contrast, rangy Western Province eighth-man Notshe did earn a passage ... and the quite likely “cheesed-off factor” helped Dan convincingly eclipse his positional battle on the day.
In fairness to Notshe, he wasn’t the only tour-bound player from the ranks of the pre-final favourites to play second fiddle to a direct foe; the Sharks ended worthy 17-12 trophy-grabbers.
But now he gets a fairly speedy opportunity anyway to level the score in a personal context with Du Preez, who is likelier to be the more effective of the two at close quarters but with Notshe hoping to out-pace him in wider areas of the park.
Quality back-up to Duane Vermeulen in the Bok No 8 berth, remember, has become additionally important due to the latest injury setback to Warren Whiteley ...
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