Bulls props' stocks may soar
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - They often speak in sporting parlance of "good matches to miss".
So perhaps in narrowly failing to reach the Vodacom Super Rugby finals series, a few Bulls players - most notably in the front row - indirectly boosted their credentials for Springbok selection this year.
That is because they handily staved off the possible indignity of taking a pounding at the hands of a Crusaders outfit who truly blitzed the Sharks and then the Stormers, particularly, at scrum-time over successive weekends of knockout rugby.
The Crusaders' front rank of loosehead prop Wyatt Crockett, hooker Corey Flynn and brothers Owen and Ben Franks at tighthead were highly influential in providing groundwork for both near-crushing victories, which powered the Cantabrians into yet another final.
Simultaneously, they effectively bloodied the noses of first the Springbok-laden Sharks starting front row of Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis and Jannie du Plessis, and then feasted to an even greater degree on Stormers troopers like Wicus Blaauw, Tiaan Liebenberg and Brok Harris.
It is true that in the latter case, they were not up against any members of the current, broad Bok "preparatory squad" but there would have been some national nervousness over the Sharks combo clearly playing second fiddle to opponents who must all come strongly into the All Black reckoning in this World Cup year.
Indeed, it is a little disconcerting that some of the quartet of Crusaders powerhouses can't even be regarded as certainties for All Blacks starts whenever they go the full-strength route this year - Flynn, for instance, would have to elbow out a senior, established Test star like the Blues' Keven Mealamu for the hooker spot, with Andrew Hore and Hika Elliot arguably also still a whisker ahead of him in the pecking order.
Crockett, meanwhile, will probably only be the first-choice No 1 if incumbent Tony Woodcock fails to recover from injury in time for the World Cup: it seems he is touch and go for the tournament.
But for Bulls players like loosehead props Gurthro Steenkamp and Dean Greyling, and tighthead Werner Kruger - all part of the Bok training party, as things stand - a fortnight of inactivity with the ousted 2010 champions has probably only advanced their national claims, given the educative scrummaging woes experienced of late by the Sharks and Stormers packs.
Toulouse-bound Steenkamp was always going to be a fairly compelling candidate anyway, assuming that he is now close to full fitness after breaking his arm much earlier in the campaign - he is South Africa's player of the year, based on last season.
But his absence for many weeks also gave franchise understudy Greyling an opportunity to show his worth, and he proved anything but a weak link, not just with his forceful use of his hefty, 128kg frame in open play but as a budding factor in the scrums as well.
Then there is Kruger: the unassuming, no-fuss No 3 has been one of the biggest improvers this winter in a domestic landscape admittedly very scarce in top-notch tightheads.
While not exactly a "dominator" yet, the 26-year-old from Kempton Park has also shown a consistent ability at least not to retreat at the set-piece, and his honest, often unseen industry outside of the scrums should not be in question.
If a Bok team suddenly had to play a key Test tomorrow, he would probably be this writer's pick at No 3, just ahead of the Sharks' Du Plessis.
Maybe in some ways, too, much-maligned Bok skipper John Smit has benefited from scrumming events of the past two Saturdays: at least he provides good bulk in the middle of the front row (if he is indeed going to be Peter de Villiers's first-choice hooker) at a time when South African prop egos are being dented in a pretty traumatic way ...