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    SA short on Test-class No 9s

    2012-03-06 14:03

    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 No 9?

    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 ...

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

    Read More On:  super 15 frederic michalak

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