Cape Town – Andries Bekker’s latest injury misfortune, on
the brink of the Test series against England, seems to have inadvertently given
Bulls lock Juandre Kruger a rosy opportunity to secure the Springbok No 5
jersey for some time.
GALLERY: All the best sporting pics from the weekend
Kruger was as impressive as any of the Bok newcomers to
international activity in Saturday’s convincing – even if not necessarily reflected
on the scoreboard itself – first-Test triumph over England at Mr Price Kings
Certainly if the 26-year-old only builds on that personal platform
over the remaining two clashes, Stormers favourite Bekker, who had been widely
tipped to assume the “athletic” second-row position from retired legend Victor
Matfield, may find it hard to simply slot automatically back into the picture
(he is already a 24-capper, though last played for South Africa nearly two
years back) when he is probably fit again for the new-look Castle Rugby
Championship in August.
Kruger doubtless knows that he will yet face a serious
threat from the 2.08m Bekker, two years his senior at 28, when the Capetonian
finally returns to full fitness; a suspicion lurks that he has struggled to do
full justice to his known abilities in Super Rugby this year because of
ailments that were never completely absent and a tendency to be overplayed.
But on Saturday the supposed “fill-in” man was worth his own
weight in gold on an encouragingly nerveless debut in the Bok second row
alongside another complete rookie in Eben Etzebeth, who similarly came through
with great credit although he got some 22 minutes fewer than his partner on the
Etzebeth was wisely substituted just short of the hour mark,
which has become a reasonably standard procedure for the tighter, more
grapple-orientated No 4 lock: Bakkies Botha often made way around that time in
his Test career for the Boks.
In his place Flip van der Merwe provided useful fresh oomph,
while Kruger simply maintained his own high work-rate to see out the full 80
minutes with aplomb.
It would always have been naive to assume that the new No 5
would simply come in and grab Matfield’s most coveted mantle, that of possibly
greatest lineout master of all time.
South Africa could not manage any genuine poaches of
opposition ball on Saturday against a unit clearly well-drilled in that
department, but smartly enough banked their own whenever Bismarck du Plessis
was throwing in straight and did manage to at least pressure England into not
winning some balls as swiftly or precisely as they might have liked.
And in certain respects, perhaps it could be argued that
Kruger may come to add an ingredient sometimes slightly lacking from Matfield’s
overall play in his last few years as an ever-present: greater prominence
outside of the combat in the skies.
Own lineout proficiency and a near-obsessive desire to “work
out” and thus badly disrupt the opposition throw-in script overwhelmingly
characterised Big Vic’s reign in a Bok jersey, and there were sometimes murmurs
that he could become near-anonymous in other capacities.
On Saturday – and this was something only confirmed for me
on later, second full viewing of the Test – Kruger’s tackle count was a
valuable string to the Bok defensive bow: he made several, and a good few of them were
pretty key, well-anticipated ones into the bargain.
Nor did he ignore his own responsibilities in the physical
stakes, including, presumably, his own competence in aid of an impressive home scrummaging
Kruger earned the best rating (seven out of 10) of all four
starting locks on view on Saturday from Paul Ackford, the Daily Telegraph rugby
scribe who is also a former British and Irish Lions second-rower.
Ackford noted of him: “A player who has grown in stature
since his move back home from Northampton.”
The Bulls man may well not become the “new Victor Matfield”
but if he keeps developing nicely simply as Petrus Johannes Juandre Kruger --
and Bekker bounces back spiritedly to challenge him sternly -- South Africa may
stay very healthily served at No 5 ...
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