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    Bissie’s birthday barnstormer

    2015-05-22 18:41

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - The big guy is back.

    A simply colossal showing from Bismarck du Plessis - perhaps his best individual game at any level in two or three years? - went a long way to sparing South African blushes in what might otherwise have been a flaky Friday for the local conference in Super Rugby after another jittery setback for the supposedly title-hope Bulls in Rotorua.

    With Du Plessis very much to the fore, the Sharks produced a display of “vasbyt” grit and resilience in their hazardous last overseas fixture to arrest a losing streak of six matches by beating the Reds 21-14 in Brisbane.

    It will matter little to the franchise, hard-pressed at present in so many respects, and their support base that it was far from the most aesthetically-pleasing game of rugby you will ever see.

    Indeed, when the Reds pulled the game back to 16-14 - they had trailed 16-7 at the break - with only around half an hour to go and the Sharks already on reserves of physical and emotional energy, it was beginning to look as though the tide might be turning against the tourists ... again.

    But that was where that truculent customer in the Sharks’ No 2 jersey became an invaluable, inspiring presence (as if he hadn’t been that already) in somehow keeping collective juices following while thoughts of the plane seats home must have flashed in their minds.

    If ever you wanted an example of an “80-minute player”, the Test stalwart was that here: he was even first player over the ball at the last ruck preceding the final whistle.

    Whether inspired by the fact that it was also the occasion of his 31st birthday, and not just the Sharks’ opportunity to avoid setting an ignominious new record for them of seven defeats on the trot, Du Plessis very much re-announced himself as a must-pick Springbok in this World Cup year.

    When he is in the utterly belligerent, yet importantly constructive, form evidenced at Suncorp Stadium, he cannot be matched by any other South African hooker - no, not even Adriaan Strauss, who in recent seasons has been eclipsing him to first-choice Bok status more often than he must like.

    It was the sort of performance which, if sustainable, will rightly also re-open the debate around whether he is the best hooker on the planet: the Australian television commentators for this match, including former Wallabies and Sharks favourite Tom Lawton, appreciatively reminded us of that.

    Since relinquishing the captaincy of the Durban-based side, and serving a costly foul-play ban, Du Plessis has gradually clawed his way back to optimal levels at his crucial trade, with the latest fixture a gleaming cherry on top.

    Although opposite number and fellow-international James Hanson (Rebels-bound next season) was every bit as effective and then some at times in the ball-carrying department, which made for a high-quality one-on-one duel, the battler from Bethlehem certainly edged it overall.

    That was primarily because Du Plessis - perhaps also playing his last campaign in present colours before heading for French challenges - was runaway ruler of the breakdown, even outdoing both open-side flankers on display, team-mate Marcell Coetzee and the Reds’ Liam Gill, for quality and frequency of turnovers.

    There was no disgrace in Coetzee playing second fiddle there; he was almost as livewire as the front-rower in general play and another large contributor to the drought-breaking scoreline.

    But if the immediate post-match stats were to be believed, Du Plessis was responsible for as many as six steals – to go with his 13 tackles and eight carries.

    You could see him sucking deep to keep his lungs functioning properly at this wickedly advanced stage of an often grim tour, but always his sheer competitive juices kept him at the very epicentre of the contest.

    Most pleasingly of all the boxes he ticked, the 70-cap Bok kept his sometimes suspect temper in check: at one stage it looked as though a Reds forward was trying to do some minor mischief to his facial feature at a ruck, no doubt frustrated by his enduring spoiling qualities in that area ... and all he did was clamber to his feet grinning.

    That is the sort of Bismarck du Plessis we need for RWC 2015, don’t we?

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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