Cape Town – He has tons of work still to do before he can be described as some sort of post-isolation parallel to a Joost van der Westhuizen or Fourie du Preez for shrewd, astute game control.
But with pure tenacity, ceaseless energy and flashes of genuine inspiration evident in bag-loads once more, terrier-like scrumhalf Faf de Klerk maintained at Mbombela Stadium on Saturday his healthy habit of dominating the Sport24 Springbok Test-match ratings list this season.
The Boks clawed back from near death – 10 points down with 13 minutes to play – to squeeze out Argentina 30-23 in a pulsating but often error-strewn Castle Rugby Championship opener.
If De Klerk was the pick of the backs, blindside flank Oupa Mohoje, his billiard-ball head encouragingly visible as a strong “stopper” whenever the Boks were under the cosh, arguably ruled the roost among the men in the engine room, although one or two others ran him close.
Here’s how I rated the Boks out of 10 at Mbombela Stadium:
Johan Goosen: 5
Up-and-down sort of game in his maiden appearance as starting fullback, not helped by some bad bounces at times. Maybe just tried too hard, but also some deft stepping and excellent collection of awkward pass in lead-up to first Bok try.
Ruan Combrinck: 6
Got on the try sheet again, to confirm his emergence as a determined predator. Couple of speedy, pressuring kick chases.
Lionel Mapoe: 4.5
Boks are struggling to set him up for the sort of wicked, corkscrew breaks that are a hallmark of his Lions play. Gave away off-side penalty, and exasperatingly spilled ball over try-line in first half. Test-level jury stays out.
Damian de Allende: 5
Still miles off his consistent effervescence and authority of 2015, though just some signs that a splash of creativity and linking relish are returning.
Bryan Habana: 5
Yellow card was Bok impediment in a tight Test, though he seemed unfortunate after being pushed and then “slipping” into a dangerous high challenge. Has had many better Tests than his 118th, but crucially involved in the late, game-swaying try.
Elton Jantjies: 5.5
Another decidedly mixed bag from the pivot. Still learning to dictate proceedings at this level, and one fairly glaring handling gremlin. But place-kicking improved as game wore on, and made one devilish line break to engineer try.
Faf de Klerk: 7.5
Mistakes? A few, for sure, including some scatty passes. But the still-rookie No 9 also got under Pumas’ skins aplenty with his feverish work-rate, startling physical desire and nuisance value; was like an open-side flanker for that. And how beautiful was that little inside pass to put Goosen over as the Bok fightback began?
Warren Whiteley: 6
Not too rip-roaring in first half, though warmed to this contest. Ran a couple of clever angles, made numerous tackles, and his roaming qualities undoubtedly came in handy as he popped up wide for the match-winning score.
Oupa Mohoje: 7
I was a cynic over his selection, and not alone. But perhaps this was his best of six Bok starts: tireless commitment on defence, including some inspired “scrambling” salvation acts. Also reminded of his excellent lineout ability; could confidently be thrown to more often.
Francois Louw: 5
Just seems to have lost a yard for the green-and-gold cause this year; fetching place beginning to look tenuous, especially as Jaco Kriel later offered vibrancy and leg-drive off the bench. Fell foul of Glen Jackson’s whistle a couple of times, too.
Lood de Jager: 6
Useful lineout steal, and showed some rosy signs of approaching his inspired, motor-beat form at RWC 2015. Had role in the passing sequence preceding Combrinck’s try.
Eben Etzebeth: 6.5
One error where he smashed in zealously for “clean” near Pumas line instead of receiving Habana pass off the deck, but otherwise a rangy, athletic, stamina-boasting display including some vital track-back sprints on defence and barnstorming surge seconds before Whiteley’s critical try.
Julian Redelinghuys: 6.5
Relatively few scrums in the No 3 anchorman’s sadly curtailed 32 minutes before injury, but solid enough in those he had. Pleasing tackle willingness, including a key one when Pumas threatened SA try-line.
Adriaan Strauss: 5.5
Still well off his A-game in open play, I feel. Guilty of bad missed tackle out wide in build-up to long-range Argentinean try on 25 minutes. That said, must be lauded for likely calm captaincy after Boks went 10 points down, plus contributed to team’s scrum bossing.
Tendai Mtawarira: 6
Set the tone for a confident set-piece day by the Boks with forceful heave at the first scrum, and largely maintained a grip in the department. Quiet on the carries front, mind.
Vincent Koch: 7
Early entry to play as Redelinghuys’s replacement, but the blond tighthead absolutely “monstered” his first scrum to quickly lay to rest the ghosts of his awkward day against the Pumas’ Marcos Ayerza (absent this time) at Durban in 2015. Continued to scrum assertively, including a fine right shoulder that did much to tee up one second-half try.
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