Bok veterans must stand up

    2015-02-18 21:14

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – The two most senior members of the Bulls and Sharks packs respectively are under early pressure to raise their games for vital second-round matches in Super Rugby this weekend.

    Bulls No 5 lock maestro Victor Matfield, a ripe old 37, and battle-hardened Sharks tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis, 32, began the 2015 competition like slow-to-fire diesel engines, their relative mediocrity hardly helping to inspire the less street-smart personnel around them as both franchises opened with damaging home losses.

    There is already intense pressure, as a result, on these initially fancied SA conference sides to make up ground as the Bulls stay on most desired, familiar terrain to tackle the Hurricanes at Loftus (Friday night) and the Sharks do likewise in Durban on Saturday against the Lions.

    As mentioned previously, wins are near-imperative in each instance, as one of them will almost certainly have to play second fiddle again when the pair meet in Pretoria just one week later.

    Matfield has been relieved of the captaincy as fit-again Pierre Spies finally makes a start at No 8 against the ‘Canes, so it is a timely opportunity for him to put all the focus on his own game which failed to meet its hugely proven, loftiest standards in the 29-17 reverse to the Stormers.

    Of course squarely blaming Matfield for the derby humbling – it was that – would be greatly wide of the mark, but as someone whom colleagues should be able to seek hope and inspiration from in times of adversity, the big athlete was unusually subdued on the day.

    If anything, the lineout legend looked a puzzled, powerless and sometimes distracted character against the contrastingly purposeful Capetonians – as evidenced at least once when he spilled a catchable short pass from scrumhalf Piet van Zyl going into contact and gave a dirty look to nobody in particular.

    While you have to make increasing allowance for older, more battle-weary players to “ease” themselves into the demands of a new season – summer breaks hardly get longer, do they?  – Matfield failed to establish general mastery over his opposite number, the promising 23-year-old Ruan Botha, who had entered the match desperately lacking in game-time after rehabilitation from long-term injury yet put himself about stirringly in all departments.

    Freed of the cares of leadership, Matfield, who must also keep nursing Jacques du Plessis through his transition recently to the second row from blindside flank, needs to be more assertive against the Hurricanes, who look less convincing on paper at lock – Mark Abbott and James Broadhurst the Loftus starters – than they do in other positions on the park.

    At Kings Park, meanwhile, another staple Bok figure of recent years, scrum anchorman Du Plessis, will be expected to wipe the slate clean, to a good degree, after an unremarkable showing by him and the broader Sharks pack in the shock defeat to the Cheetahs.

    For all his own vast acumen at No 3, the popular doctor found himself “popped” a bit more than he would have liked – albeit that collective scrum pressure can be an over-riding reason -- against former Sharks squad-mate Danie Mienie, almost 10 years his junior and not expected beforehand to be too much of a factor for the visitors against the Bok-laden Sharks front row.

    Instead Mienie and Coenie Oosthuizen, who is starting to blossom a bit at tighthead after early difficulties in his tricky switch, got more traction at the set-piece than even they probably anticipated.

    Admittedly the Sharks were dealt a badly disruptive blow before kick-off when Du Plessis’s brother and captain, Bismarck, pulled out unexpectedly through a shoulder issue which would have impeded co-ordination, and then another front-line Bok prop, Tendai Mtawarira, limped off with his inconvenient calf injury.

    Minus Mtawarira on the loosehead side, there will be a strong onus on Du Plessis to show his pedigree at tighthead against the Lions, who pride themselves on a forceful scrum.

    Just as Matfield will be acutely aware that spring chickens like Pieter-Steph du Toit threaten his possible starting berth for South Africa at the 2015 World Cup and perhaps even before that, it should not have escaped the attention of Du Plessis that both Oosthuizen and the Stormers new boy Vincent Koch produced rousing No 3 showings in week one of Super Rugby.

    Older warhorses across the competition’s spectrum this weekend have probably been shaken by certain shock results from the first round, where it was noticeable that teams laden with Test stars tended to come a cropper.

    They need to grease their engines and move up through the gears ...

     *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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