Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - For a match between the two South African sides
who reached the playoffs phase in last season’s competition, Saturday’s Super
Rugby meeting between the Stormers and Sharks at Newlands may have been high on
tension but it failed rather lamentably for quality.
A key reason for that slightly worrying hallmark, I felt,
was the frailty to varying degrees on the day of both sets of halfback pairings
– Frenchman Frederic Michalak (at No 9) and Pat Lambie for the Sharks and
Dewaldt Duvenage and Gary van Aswegen for the home side.
Essential conduits for creative play across the field,
neither duo displayed any consistency, cohesion or ability to grab a sloppy,
stop-start sort of fixture by the scruff of the neck and at least start to
dictate it to some extent.
Things did get a little better from a Stormers point of view
some six minutes after the break when Peter Grant, just back from Japan,
replaced the still-rookie Van Aswegen at flyhalf and, while rusty and nothing
like the authoritative character of some two or three years ago yet, at least
brought some sort of “presence” to the slot.
In fairness, neither Van Aswegen nor the prodigiously
talented Lambie, directly opposite him throughout the first half and then
head-to-head against Grant, had the luxury of compelling performances from the
men on their inside who provide them with the “pill”.
Duvenage, it must be pointed out, is still feeling his way
back from a layoff (yes, it showed) and had not had the luxury of any part in
pre-season activity, so the expectation in the Stormers camp will certainly be
that he gets sharper both in terms of service and tactical kicking – an area
where both teams were mostly sub-standard on Saturday.
Sadly, too, versatile Michalak generally only confirmed the
fear in many circles that he is a bit of a fish out of water at No 9 and far
more comfortable and mercurial when pulling the strings at pivot.
Doubtless watching the game with more than passing interest,
new Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer might not have too unsettled by what he saw in
the flyhalf channel, especially given that further north in the country Bok
incumbent Morne Steyn was involved in an intriguing (albeit surprisingly
one-sided, ultimately) ding-dong with exciting Cheetahs phenomenon Johan Goosen
and there are also the burgeoning claims of Elton Jantjies to consider.
But I can’t help wondering whether Meyer isn’t quietly
concerned about a relative dearth at present of genuinely Test-class options at
Of course the name of Francois Hougaard swiftly leaps out as
a reassuring presence to many, who view him as the logical replacement should
the great, now Japan-based Fourie du Preez be deemed not to have any future in
a national team jersey.
It will be fascinating, naturally, to monitor his progress
as new first-choice at scrumhalf for the Bulls this season, even if it is
unfortunate that he has copped a one-match ban for a tip tackle that will keep
him out of first exposure to overseas opposition in Super Rugby this year, when
the Blues visit Loftus on Saturday and he would have opposed either (or perhaps
both) of All Blacks Alby Mathewson and Piri Weepu.
Hougaard brings an array of skills to the party, even if a
gut feel remains in me that, because he is instinctive and sometimes impulsive
(that not necessarily a flaw, of course) his best position for weaving his
magic and eternal vibrancy is on the wing, where he has often looked so
dangerous as an impact factor for South Africa.
You have to be a bit of a “general” at scrumhalf, after all,
with great awareness of tactical considerations in the various zones on the
park, and his big challenge is going to be to match the outstanding authority and
peripheral vision of former Loftus stablemate Du Preez in that regard.
The rest of the SA scrumhalf crop in Super Rugby at present
does not make for especially awe-inspiring reading, in truth.
Charl McLeod at the Sharks has never subsequently matched
his stellar efforts of 2010, when he catapulted into the Bok end-of-year
picture, which perhaps partly explains why Michalak has been getting some
scrumhalf starts, although that may just change soon.
With improved game-time, the Stormers’ 23-year-old Duvenage
is likely to “grow” into the new season, although whether he is international
quality remains a matter for debate and the same, with respect, applies to players
like the Lions’ Michael Bondesio and the Cheetahs pair of Tewis de Bruyn and
the considerably younger Piet van Zyl.
Indeed, the already faltering Cheetahs may well be rueing
the departure for the Waratahs, and a possible onward career with the
Wallabies, of Sarel Pretorius who may have his defensive critics but does bring
X-factor to the berth.
There is still Ulster-based Ruan Pienaar to consider
(remember that he was briefly linked with a return to SA in the shape of the
Stormers last year), but at almost 28 and with 51 Bok caps to his name,
arguably we remain none the wiser as to his regular claims to the Bok scrumhalf
position -- exceptional positional versatility has not really been his best
friend over the years, when you think about it.
With whispers coming in from Japan that Du Preez is in
better physical nick now than he was at the World Cup last year (coming off a
long-term injury, let’s not forget), I believe the environment, based on the
first couple of weeks of Super Rugby play, may only be getting better, not more
far-fetched, for his possible return to Bok duty under the Meyer regime.
Detractors may mutter “has-been” all they like; in calendar
terms the richly-proven No 9 maestro still only hits his 30th year
later this month ...
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