Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - You can’t keep a good man down ... even if he is a nearly 38-year-old rugby player.
Schalk Brits’s awesome display for the Bulls at hooker, and up against Springbok first-choice strongman Malcolm Marx, arguably provided the major talking point after Saturday’s double dose of South African derbies in Super Rugby.
Certainly the well-travelled figure’s beautifully rounded showing at Ellis Park, where he once served home outfits the Golden Lions and Cats between 2004 and 2005, was a better source of feel-good factor than much of the later action in the supposed headline clash of the day between the Sharks and Stormers in Durban.
Not that the Capetonians will care that it was a tepid, uninspiring contest for the most part: the underdogs were worthy 16-11 winners, playing a disciplined, conservative and physicality-conscious game that knocked the supposedly reinvented Sharks right off their stride.
ALSO READ: Stormers in blue to avoid jersey confusion
Robbie Fleck’s charges now enter a well-earned bye week off having recovered dramatically - at least in scoreboard terms, rather than for any special rugby dynamism - from their opening-round thumping at Loftus to bag respective narrow triumphs over the Lions and now Sharks.
They are yet to create a properly well-executed try this season, and only produced two in total from the trio of matches (Saturday’s lone dot-down was an alert intercept by Damian Willemse) but have at least served up a reminder over the last two rounds that a certain pride in the brand remains embedded in the players’ hearts despite the boardroom strife and financial instability at Newlands.
The result - eked out in typical KwaZulu-Natal humidity at this time of year which, John Smit reminded in the SuperSport studio, is simply not conducive to ball-in-hand fluency - meant a blow to the Sharks’ prior, highly encouraging two-match start to the 2019 campaign.
What’s more, they now face an equally punishing all-domestic fixture again next up: the Bulls at Loftus.
The Stormers, meanwhile, will relish the thought of a bit of feet-up time for some of their gnarly pack figures: Springbok stalwarts like Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit were colossal in Durban for work-rate and “grunt”, with younger players like JD Schickerling and late call-up at No 8 Jaco Coetzee not far behind.
They also have the good likelihood of seeing Bok loose-head prop Steven Kitshoff declared fit for a return to action from injury (and his first Super Rugby involvement of the year) soon after the bye; their next game will be at home to the Jaguares on the Friday night of March 15.
But the story of the day came out of Johannesburg, where Brits was hugely inspirational in the Bulls - now a third SA team to be “two from three” - seeing off the Lions, the country’s premier side for each of the last three years and losing finalists each time, with some startling daylight between them (30-12) in the Highveld derby.
It was two tries all, but that was a very deceptive statistic, given how majestically the Bulls bossed the clash strategically, territorially and in terms of possession.
In age-old Bulls fashion, they built plenty of scoreboard pressure by electing to bang over penalties via the red-hot boot of flyhalf Handre Pollard rather than go for the attacking lineout or quick tap too often.
But the visitors also played plenty of constructive rugby, with danger virtually ever-present from their lively back three of fullback Warrick Gelant and wings Cornal Hendricks and Rosko Specman.
While another established “yster” in Duane Vermeulen was also a routine menace in the collective bullying of a lightweight Lions pack, Brits performed with astonishing zeal in the No 2 jersey, involved in all areas of play.
His hooker “basics” were superb, including contributing to the Bulls determinedly not going backwards at scrum-time - sometimes a weaker area of their make-up - but he busied himself additionally at the breakdown, and stepped and sprinted at times with trademark, almost BaaBaas-like spirit.
He earned an approving nod on Twitter from Bok tearaway loose forward legend Rob Louw, who said (@roblouw6): “To all those people who attacked Rassie (Erasmus) on why he had the ‘old’ Schalk Brits in his Bok squad, I hope your questions have been answered. Smiley an incredible presence today in this tough derby!”
The Lions have been left suddenly rather on the back foot, with successive defeats undoing their opening-round fine work in beating the Jaguares for the first time in Buenos Aires ...
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Hurricanes v Highlanders, 08:35; Rebels v Brumbies, 10:45. Saturday: Crusaders v Chiefs, 06:15; Blues v Sunwolves, 08:35; Waratahs v Reds, 10:45; Lions v Jaguares, 15:05; Bulls v Sharks, 17:15. Bye: Stormers.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing