Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The two most senior members of the Bulls and Sharks
packs respectively are under early pressure to raise their games for vital
second-round matches in Super Rugby this weekend.
Bulls No 5 lock maestro Victor Matfield, a ripe old 37, and battle-hardened
Sharks tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis, 32, began the 2015 competition like
slow-to-fire diesel engines, their relative mediocrity hardly helping to
inspire the less street-smart personnel around them as both franchises opened
with damaging home losses.
There is already intense pressure, as a result, on these initially
fancied SA conference sides to make up ground as the Bulls stay on most
desired, familiar terrain to tackle the Hurricanes at Loftus (Friday night) and
the Sharks do likewise in Durban on Saturday against the Lions.
As mentioned previously, wins are near-imperative in each
instance, as one of them will almost certainly have to play second fiddle again
when the pair meet in Pretoria just one week later.
Matfield has been relieved of the captaincy as fit-again
Pierre Spies finally makes a start at No 8 against the ‘Canes, so it is a
timely opportunity for him to put all the focus on his own game which failed to
meet its hugely proven, loftiest standards in the 29-17 reverse to the
Of course squarely blaming Matfield for the derby humbling –
it was that – would be greatly wide of the mark, but as someone whom colleagues
should be able to seek hope and inspiration from in times of adversity, the big
athlete was unusually subdued on the day.
If anything, the lineout legend looked a puzzled, powerless
and sometimes distracted character against the contrastingly purposeful Capetonians
– as evidenced at least once when he spilled a catchable short pass from
scrumhalf Piet van Zyl going into contact and gave a dirty look to nobody in
While you have to make increasing allowance for older, more
battle-weary players to “ease” themselves into the demands of a new season –
summer breaks hardly get longer, do they? – Matfield failed to establish general mastery
over his opposite number, the promising 23-year-old Ruan Botha, who had entered
the match desperately lacking in game-time after rehabilitation from long-term
injury yet put himself about stirringly in all departments.
Freed of the cares of leadership, Matfield, who must also
keep nursing Jacques du Plessis through his transition recently to the second
row from blindside flank, needs to be more assertive against the Hurricanes,
who look less convincing on paper at lock – Mark Abbott and James Broadhurst
the Loftus starters – than they do in other positions on the park.
At Kings Park, meanwhile, another staple Bok figure of
recent years, scrum anchorman Du Plessis, will be expected to wipe the slate
clean, to a good degree, after an unremarkable showing by him and the broader
Sharks pack in the shock defeat to the Cheetahs.
For all his own vast acumen at No 3, the popular doctor
found himself “popped” a bit more than he would have liked – albeit that
collective scrum pressure can be an over-riding reason -- against former Sharks
squad-mate Danie Mienie, almost 10 years his junior and not expected beforehand
to be too much of a factor for the visitors against the Bok-laden Sharks front
Instead Mienie and Coenie Oosthuizen, who is starting to
blossom a bit at tighthead after early difficulties in his tricky switch, got
more traction at the set-piece than even they probably anticipated.
Admittedly the Sharks were dealt a badly disruptive blow
before kick-off when Du Plessis’s brother and captain, Bismarck, pulled out unexpectedly
through a shoulder issue which would have impeded co-ordination, and then another
front-line Bok prop, Tendai Mtawarira, limped off with his inconvenient calf
Minus Mtawarira on the loosehead side, there will be a
strong onus on Du Plessis to show his pedigree at tighthead against the Lions,
who pride themselves on a forceful scrum.
Just as Matfield will be acutely aware that spring chickens
like Pieter-Steph du Toit threaten his possible starting berth for South Africa
at the 2015 World Cup and perhaps even before that, it should not have escaped
the attention of Du Plessis that both Oosthuizen and the Stormers new boy
Vincent Koch produced rousing No 3 showings in week one of Super Rugby.
Older warhorses across the competition’s spectrum this
weekend have probably been shaken by certain shock results from the first
round, where it was noticeable that teams laden with Test stars tended to come
They need to grease their engines and move up through the
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