Marx v Coles: Fine Champs foretaste
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The duel between rival hookers Malcolm Marx and Dane Coles is just one of a few more in Saturday’s Super Rugby semi-final between the Lions and Hurricanes which could also provide pointers to the Springboks v All Blacks encounters in the 2017 Rugby Championship.
With the visitors to Emirates Airline Park (14:30 kick-off) also arriving as the defending champions and the Lions the runners-up, and both sides firing strongly again this year, it stands to reason that each franchise should be healthily represented in the looming four-nation annual Test competition.
So certain one-on-ones this weekend will double as previews, in a sense, of the clashes between seemingly resurgent South Africa and enduringly No 1-ranked New Zealand in Albany (September 16) and Cape Town (October 8).
Here are four individual tussles that could go a long way to determining the outcome of the semi, some of them with looming, superior-level relevance as well...
Malcolm Marx v Dane Coles
The Springbok hooker almost undeniably confirmed himself, especially while veteran overseas-based Bismarck du Plessis continues to be overlooked, as the “number one at No 2” for the country during the clean sweep of France in June. Frankly, no other locally-stationed player in the position comes close to the Lions strongman right now, especially as Marx vastly improved his key throwing-in function in that series. But the robust, strapping competitor, who should be a big factor for the Lions in mauling and for turnover assistance on Saturday, now comes up against possibly the best there is in the berth, as Coles makes a timely return to starting duty after his relatively long-term layoff which saw him miss the glamour British and Irish Lions series. He looked almost unreasonably sharp off the bench in the quarter-final triumph in Canberra last week, so the ‘Canes would have had little hesitation in thrusting him into the XV, and leadership task, for Ellis Park. It is possible that Coles will be breathing a little heavily on the Highveld by midway through the second half, but Ricky Riccitelli is a capable back-up... as is the Lions’ own reserve hooker Akker van der Merwe, of course.
Jaco Kriel v Ardie Savea
You might as well add Kwagga Smith to this battle, too, as the semi will effectively feature three openside-type tearaways. Savea is an absolute dynamo as a carrier and linker, fitting in so ideally with the Hurricanes’ hugely fluid playing style, and his fierce leg-drive was there for all to see against the Brumbies in the QF. But both Kriel and Smith are also in seventh heaven when matches are fast and loose. This one might be, on an expected firm surface... but being a knockout clash, it’s also less than guaranteed. In that case, the pilfering skills and general work-rate of the trio will come into stronger focus and with two genuine whippets amidst their loose trio, the Lions could just steal a wee march there. With popular first-choice captain Warren Whiteley still confined to a tracksuit in the home camp, Kriel’s leadership skills and decision-making will again be under a strong spotlight.
Ross Cronje v TJ Perenara
It’s the current Bok first-choice scrumhalf against the All Black bench-man (Perenara is back-up to Aaron Smith). Cronje has played with intelligence and crispness for much of the year so far, even if he’s not the speediest No 9 ever to grace the game. But he was a little below his best in “basics and accuracies” terms against the Sharks last Saturday, and will need to beef up his act against the highly competitive, assertive Perenara. It will help the Lions’ cause enormously if the New Zealander can be pressured, because that sometimes leads to him losing his cool and beginning to irritate referees with his gesticulating and running commentary, as it were...
Elton Jantjies v Beauden Barrett
Poor old Elton. Given his historical tendency to be really good when he’s on song and disturbingly flaky when things start going against him (a less frequent phenomenon, it must be said), he finds himself under unforgiving scrutiny anew. That’s because he was so notably off his A-game in virtually all departments in the close shave against the Sharks. But Jantjies is also well capable of putting that behind him and suddenly being the ace string-puller in the Lions’ midst with the flick of a switch; home fans will fervently hope that occurs in this likely humdinger. Up against him, and formidably so, is his likely opposite number at flyhalf in the Championship... the wily, elusive, lean figure that is Barrett. He almost always manages to be crucially influential in an attacking capacity, even if his place-kicking can be a chink in his impressive armoury. This No 10 encounter should be one for the purists if both are oozing confidence. In the case of Jantjies, doing something positive or constructive early on might have a vital settling effect.
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