Kruger v Bekker: a tasty duel
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Most “north versus south” clashes between the Stormers and Bulls are spicy affairs anyway, but there is suddenly an additional reason to keenly await the first 2012 Super Rugby meeting between them on March 31 here.
Of course both sides have several other hurdles to jump first, but when the three-time champions lock horns with last season’s best-placed South African franchise a mighty duel in the air - and elsewhere - looms at Newlands between athletic locks Andries Bekker and Juandre Kruger.
The former has for some time been widely considered to be the natural heir apparent to great Springbok lineout icon Victor Matfield, now on the pitch only in a new capacity as SuperSport television critic.
Not only is Bekker near-freakishly gifted in a height capacity (2.08m) but in the last couple of seasons he has also gone a very long way to shedding a suspicion that he came up a little short for “grunt” work outside of his most beloved lineouts.
In fairness, he remains the logical, likeliest next cab on the rank to occupy the Matfield vacancy in the Springbok No 5 jersey ... fitness-permitting, of course, because the 28-year-old has not been short of worrying injury setbacks in his otherwise burgeoning career.
But Friday night at Loftus, in the maiden SA conference derby of the season between the Bulls and Sharks, saw Juandre Kruger, two years more youthful than Bekker, issue a powerful message that the latter may not be guaranteed a mere walk-in to the Bok starting XV.
Ironically Kruger is a product of the Western Cape too, educated at Paul Roos and Stellenbosch University, but he switched allegiance to the Bulls in 2008 and is very much part of the rebuild job going on at Loftus in the wake of so many legendary figures retiring or moving on at once.
Quite obviously, satisfactorily replacing Matfield in the Pretoria-based side was always going to be a huge ask, but in Super Rugby terms Kruger could hardly have made a better fist of it in the 2012 opener, being a richly-deserved choice for player of the match as the Bulls eked out a merited triumph.
He was outstanding on all fronts more or less from start to finish of a largely grim, grinding affair that rather typified all-South African clashes in the competition.
Kruger had been a decent element, I thought, of an otherwise problematic Blue Bulls season in last year’s Currie Cup, where they unusually failed to reach the semi-finals.
And at the next notch up on rugby’s ladder on Friday, he was one of relatively few players on view to compellingly stick his hand up for involvement in Bok plans under new mastermind Heyneke Meyer, who doubtless already knows plenty about him anyway.
Whether it was collecting kick-offs, roaming energetically, making tackles, banking his own lineout ball or putting real pressure on the Sharks’ throw-in - the visitors were rather shown up once again in this department, where Kruger won a crucial steal near the finish – the Bulls man made a wonderful impression.
He certainly called the lineouts with all the relish and clarity Matfield used to, and just as satisfying was his central involvement in Bulls rolling mauls, which made some productive inroads on the night.
Clearly his stint in the gruelling, no-nonsense forward environment of England with Northampton Saints, where he was highly valued, has rubbed off advantageously.
One awesome game doesn’t qualify you for a role in Test plans, it is true, and when he opposes Bekker we will get a better idea of Kruger’s mettle.
But he has made an eye-catching start to the Super Rugby campaign.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing