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    Steenkamp 'frees up' Bekker

    2013-03-27 14:35

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – When aggressive young lock sensation Eben Etzebeth badly injured an ankle in the pre-season friendly against Boland at Cape Town Stadium, there were rightful fears that the Stormers’ Super Rugby challenge for 2013 had taken a major knock.

    With two early derbies – formidable successive away ones against the Bulls and Sharks – quickly surrendered and the pack generally placed on the back foot each time, that theory appeared to be gaining weight.

    But the uncannily injury-plagued Stormers are nothing if not possessors of a gritty survival instinct: commendable bounce-back wins against the Chiefs and Brumbies subsequently have coincided with thunderous second-row performances from incumbents Andries Bekker and De Kock Steenkamp.

    Such efforts are probably more expected of the lanky former, an established Springbok squad member and near-veteran Super Rugby campaigner, who has at last recaptured the sort of consistent fitness levels (with a bit of luck, saying that hasn’t created a rapid curse?) that have allowed him to blossom anew.

    But the strides over the last few weeks of lock partner Steenkamp, normally a reasonably peripheral figure in the camp, have been particularly pleasing to both the Stormers’ management and supporters.

    The 26-year-old from Williston in the depths of the Karoo is a no-fuss, unglamorous sort of character but has raised his game to levels some might have expected he couldn’t – and this in the less suited role of No 4 lock, as he has predominantly been viewed as the back-up to Bekker as a No 5 previously.

    Just as commanding as his towering colleague at lineout time, Steenkamp has also knuckled down to mauling, tackling and cleaning-out chores with great aplomb, so much so that the recuperating Etzebeth has not been missed to the extent widely expected.

    The lifting of his game has been pleasing also because the franchise’s lock stocks took another blow this week: coach Allister Coetzee, who deals with injury quandaries so often that you can hardly blame him for any update oversights in his press conferences, suddenly piped up over a cup of coffee with rugby scribes on Wednesday morning that Ruan Botha, the 21-year-old former Baby Boks star they have signed from the Lions, broke an ankle at WP training and is out for several months.

    Coetzee is not slow to brand the likes of Steenkamp and utility forward Rynhardt Elstadt (who might also have been considered for No 4 duty in Etzebeth’s absence) “unsung heroes” of the Stormers’ climb up the table over the last three weeks.

    And when captain Jean de Villiers was asked to sum up Bekker’s resurgent form at Wednesday’s briefing, he could not help bringing Steenkamp into the equation as well.

    “Yes, (Bekker) has been fantastic. I also feel that when you are able to keep playing week in and week out, then you sort of find your form is getting better all the time.

    “I think we’ve seen that from Andries now, being able to play a couple of games in a row again. Touch wood, hopefully we can keep him on the park, because we’ve seen how instrumental he can be in our performances.

    “He offers leadership, too, and I have to compliment the whole pack for the way they’ve functioned recently; guys are doing their jobs around him and perhaps freeing him up a bit to run with the ball a bit more.

    “For that you need a guy like De Kock to hit 20 to 30 rucks a game and maybe make more tackles in a game, so as a combination they’ve done really well.”

    The Crusaders will field a typically tough, competitive tight five on Saturday, and one not exactly shy of New Zealand internationals, so De Villiers will be eager for the collective pack cohesion and hunger to continue ...

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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