Pieter-Steph can steal a march

    2014-01-24 11:20

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – The words “Victor” and “Matfield” ought to be enough to ensure that bright Sharks lock investment Pieter-Steph du Toit seeks a fast, forceful start to the 2014 rugby season.

    A magnificent first opportunity comes his way on Saturday as his Super Rugby franchise face an unusually taxing and high-profile first gallop of the year against English Premiership leaders and South African-laden Saracens at Allianz Park in north London.

    Let’s not forget that if veteran lineout great Matfield is, indeed, serious about a comeback at the age of 36, he will supposedly be eased gradually back into first-class activity by the Bulls.

    Fifteen years his junior at 21, Du Toit requires less conservatism in game-time management -- and should try to use that to his advantage as he seeks to convince Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer that he is the man for the No 5 jersey, possibly as early as this season.

    There is no question that Meyer, so familiar with Matfield’s skills and strategic acumen over the course of many years at Loftus, will monitor the iconic athlete’s return with no lack of interest, bearing the 2015 World Cup in mind and the wish to balance his second-row resources – both at Nos 4 and 5 – between youth and gnarly experience.

    But at the same time, he has made no secret of his admiration for the two-metre, 115kg Du Toit, right from the beginning of his tenure as Bok mastermind in mid-2012.

    Meyer’s understandable fear is that if he partners the Sharks rookie with almost as young Eben Etzebeth (22), the Bok lock department will undoubtedly have a raw look to it.

    A counter to that view, of course, is that if Etzebeth could make such enormous strides in the enforcer/front-jumper berth, why shouldn’t also Du Toit, if given a proper crack at No 5?

    In addition, the quicker this potentially exciting alliance is established, the more equipped they will be to shine as a combo at the UK-staged World Cup.

    While Matfield isn’t the only possible rival candidate to the emerging Du Toit for No 5 in Tests – Flip van der Merwe did well there on the triumphant European tour of 2013, though really remains more suited to four – his legend is such that the Sharks youngster will find it impossible to eliminate the selection threat posed by him from his mind.

    Which is why ticking as many performance boxes as possible, personally, by Du Toit is a reasonably urgent task and should ideally begin in the appealing fixture against Sarries.

    Yes, this outing comes desperately early in the South African rugby year – it would not be a train smash, frankly, if the slightly experimental Sharks side loses to a team in their own mid-season and thus far better primed for the scrap – but that should not prevent the blond prospect from having a special wish to excel, in partnership with a new ally here in Etienne Oosthuizen.

    The latter has effectively followed Sharks director of rugby Jake White back to South African shores from the Brumbies.

    Not only is this match taking place in English winter conditions – perhaps not too dissimilar to what will be experienced at the autumnal RWC in 2015 – but Du Toit also finds himself up against no slouches at all on the opposition side.

    Saracens captain Steve Borthwick is a suitably pockmarked, 34-year-old veteran of second-row combat, holder of 57 Test caps and a former England skipper into the bargain.

    His partner will be KZN-born Mouritz Botha, also no stranger to the white jersey of his adopted country and, at 31, another customer who will significantly eclipse Du Toit in street wisdom.

    The Sharks lock has been blooded gently into Bok plans, having earned two caps off the bench on the latest northern hemisphere conquest – 12 late minutes against Wales and then 13 against France.

    He should get a lot longer on the park on Saturday, in what amounts to a tidy little “trial”, doesn’t it?  

     *The match is at 16:30 SA time and will be screened live on SS1 and SHD

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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