Rob Houwing

Bekker: Big, big enigma

2009-10-14 08:30
Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing (File)
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

At 2.08m, Andries Bekker is the sort of individual whom you imagine might get a light dusting of snow on his head during cold fronts in the rugby season.

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Certainly in Test-arena terms he has no obvious equal around the world in God-given loftiness as a lock forward - possibly at wider first-class level as well.

Even Victor Matfield, the undisputed king of the lineout who stands 2m on the nail, and his enforcer pal for the Bulls and Boks, Bakkies Botha (2.01m), can’t hold a candle to Bekker in the personal “altitude” stakes.

Nor can you really brand the Western Province second-rower a string-bean … that implies that you don’t have much meat on the bone and, tipping the scales at 120kg if pen-sketches are to be believed, Bekker is not the sort you would wisely target for a handful of sand in his face.

The 25-year-old Capetonian’s attributes don’t end there, because for so big a unit he possesses enviable athleticism, including a marvellous, deceptive burst of acceleration.

Not too surprisingly, then, he has been a virtual ever-present, when fit, for his Currie Cup and Super 14 franchise and a consistent Springbok squad member as well - even if the brilliant, perfect-foil Matfield-Botha lock alliance is painfully hard to break into in first XV terms.

Bekker is pretty much viewed as next in line for Matfield’s spring-heeled international shoes, with Danie Rossouw and Johann Muller the likelier current fits - the future is perhaps less certain on that front -- should Botha’s more netherworld, “enforcer” role become vacant for any reason.

On Saturday Bekker, not long back from injury, appeared to be one of the standout players on the park in the Absa Currie Cup thriller between the out-of-contention but still steel-willed Lions and WP.

He was prominent as early as the opening minute, contributing to the hand-to-hand move that earned Juan de Jongh his try, later made a telling break to set up Joe Pietersen’s, and might have bagged his own in the second half when he rampaged toward the posts only to be reined in after he looked back to gauge where the nearest tackler was: had he simply pinned his ears back he might have made it.

So yes, Bekker was well nigh immense … in open play, that is.

But did he deserve a stellar, eight- or nine-out-of-10 individual rating in overall terms? A niggling part of me was determined to proceed with judgmental caution.

We saw a lot of “flash” from the No 5, after all, and while several of his sprinting sortees were undoubtedly easy on the eye and valuable to his side, you also have to consider the bigger picture.

Province, after all, lost the match - a rather key fact. And they lost it, in many respects, because they were taken a little by surprise by the collective muscle and endeavour of a Lions pack featuring few luminary names but a praiseworthy, get-down-and-dirty, all-hands-to-the-pump ethic.

To a moderate extent, the much-vaunted, supposedly resurgent WP scrum got a come-uppance, bulldozers like Willem Alberts made forceful yards for the Lions in the tight-loose and Bekker’s presence also wasn’t enough to prevent the visitors losing some lineouts off their own throw.

It is probably too simplistic and possibly even statistically unfair - coaches love to throw bamboozling figures at you when they’re indignant about your assertions - to suggest that Bekker spent too much time loitering in the backline.

This might be deemed an indignity … a bit like castigating a fireman for directing traffic past the fire engine while his colleagues battled a mushrooming flame-front.

But it wasn’t the first time, even if the perception may be cruelly exaggerated, that Bekker probably made himself susceptible to charges of his favouring linking up with the three-quarters to earthier, more primary tasks in the engine room.

Was it a coincidence that, with Bekker back in the second row and the uncompromising Chris Jack now a fading memory, Province couldn’t get their previously machine-like eight-man shove or rolling maul working very smoothly at Coca-Cola Park?

Gary Gold, the Springbok forwards coach, swears to me that Bekker is a “good scrummager”, but when you are pairing 2.08m Bekker with 1.93m Anton van Zyl (a standout in WP’s rebirth this winter) in a provincial scrum, do you not perhaps throw a wee bit of shoving cohesion and alignment out of the window?

Does it make an epicentre of power more elusive? Is Bekker an ingredient, dare I say it, that could spoil a promising boiler-room cake?
I do not claim to be the original guru on these matters; simply a devil’s advocate, maybe.

I have often quietly wondered, too, whether Bekker’s unusually high centre of gravity may impact, detrimentally, on mauling play – offensive or defensive -- by the pack he is playing in.

Nor have I forgotten events of two years ago when, ignoring the urgent, dissident advice of Mark Andrews and others, the Bok wise men, with Bakkies Botha unavailable, paired Matfield with the all-too-similar Bekker against the All Blacks at Newlands and South Africa were trounced 19-0.

In slightly more eccentric moments, I even chew on the following: is he actually better suited to a marauding, quirkily unorthodox blindside flank, perhaps?

But then I also think back to people like the illustrious Matfield, confidently assuring that Bekker will, indeed, cut it majestically in the near-future as a starting Springbok second-rower.

This piece is certainly not intended to glibly pooh-pooh the many qualities Bekker brings to a rugby field: I like watching him on the gallop, for instance, as much as the next man.

And just because he is capable of making himself so prominent in the loose, does that necessarily mean he is ignoring his responsibilities nearer the coalface? We need to mull over that before jumping to conclusions.

This weekend, on a Currie Cup semi-final date that could sweetly reignite a once distinguished north-south feud, the specific battle at lock between a pair of Bok legends and two credible pretenders could go a long way to determining the outcome.

It may also be an apt opportunity for Andries Bekker to remind the country of his fullest range of lock skills …


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