Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The 2018 Rugby Championship now being only a month away spices further some of the individual duels taking place in the Super Rugby quarter-finals this weekend.
If Friday’s first-up, Hurricanes v Chiefs derby meeting was something of an “All Blacks trial”, the other three - all on Saturday - instead offer useful bilateral opportunities for certain shots to be fired across bows ahead of the Test-level competition.
In some cases, too, the remaining knockout phase offers fringe international players late opportunities to press more strongly for deployment during the Championship.
Here is my suggestion of four match-ups, two from each game, to pay special attention to in the pair of games relevant to South Africa …
Lions v Jaguares:
Malcolm Marx v Agustin Creevy
This is my pick of the whole bunch: on any given day in the current rugby year, you would struggle to find a single, better-quality one-on-one scrap at hooker than Saturday’s at Ellis Park.
It’s basically fast-emerging global giant (Marx) against one of the most gnarly, street-wise figures (Creevy) to have plied the trade in a No 2 jersey for the past decade or so.
There’s an age gap of 10 years - the Lions man very recently turned 23, Creevy is 33 - but the latter is one of those characters who so seldom looks “washed up” as his competitive juices flow so unfailingly strongly.
That won’t be any different this weekend: the Argentinean Test veteran knows he is a tantalising, potential mere two games away from a maiden Super Rugby final for both him and his Jaguares colleagues in what has been easily their most inspiring campaign thus far. In his case, such an opportunity may well not come around again.
As for Marx, he will be desperate (as will many around him in the Jo’burg fold) to make it “third time lucky” in early August by finally throwing off the runners-up tag.
Both are immensely combative, don’t-give-an-inch figures, even if the South African has the edge in height (1.88m v 1.81m) and power (114kg plays some 110kg).
While Creevy possesses a reputational edge in lineout-throwing accuracy, Marx may balance that by being the more effective factor at the breakdown and for his unstoppable leg-drive qualities near the try-line. Mind you, bank on Creevy being one of the first in there trying to arrest his surge …
Elton Jantjies v Nicolas Sanchez
The diminutive Lions pivot divides observers’ opinions at the best of times, but even his most ardent of fans would be hard-pressed not to admit that his A-game has often been too elusive this season.
Jantjies was close to lamentable when questionably chosen to pull the Bok strings in a wet-weather closing Test against England at Newlands recently, and even on firmer surfaces for his beloved franchise since, has struggled to hit fresh levels of true consistency – his option-taking has left some question marks at key times.
His presence even in the extended Bok squad looks increasingly tenuous, particularly as Handre Pollard should soon be fit again, and to curb that risk a champagne run in the Super Rugby knockouts would be welcome.
He is still an absolutely vital element in the Lions’ attack plans, though he comes face to face with a particularly worthy, dangerous direct foe on Saturday: Pumas stalwart Sanchez.
Frankly, he means as much to the Jaguares as Jantjies does to the Lions for his ability to impose himself with his deft skills and just hold everything together tactically.
The 29-year-old, quite possibly at the peak of his game, was among the many Jaguares front-liners rested from the Sharks match in Durban last weekend, and with Joaquin Diaz Bonilla deputising at No 10 then, the Argentineans showed little collective X-factor in the defeat.
That should change, and then some …
Crusaders v Sharks:
Andre Esterhuizen v Ryan Crotty
The one thing you know about sturdy Crotty is that nobody can expect to run over him ad nauseam, can they?
He is a solid physical specimen at inside centre in his own right, among his numerous enough other attributes – including knowing the Crusaders’ successful systems inside out; he has been on their books since 2009.
But if Crotty and the star-studded other components of the defending champions’ backline are going to be pressed onto the less desired back foot, the almost freakishly large and forceful Esterhuizen will have to be a critical architect.
Getting the 110kg muscle-man right up to and over the advantage line - he is also increasingly good at off-loading astutely out of the tackle - will depend to a large extent on whether the Sharks pack can dominate, of course.
And that is far from guaranteed: few rival boiler rooms have been getting the better of the Crusaders’ well-greased eight.
But Esterhuizen being enabled to have a barn-stormer in Christchurch would also go some way to restoring his credentials for the Bok No 12 jersey.
He’s had a notably contrasting duo of starts for his country: personally decent on debut in the loss to Wales in Washington, disappointingly innocuous in conditions that should have played nicely into his hands in the dead-rubber loss to England in Cape Town.
Dan du Preez v Kieran Read
He’s had unusually little rugby over the last year or so, but the restoration recently of established All Black legend Read to the Crusaders’ mix at No 8 only enhances their chances of retaining the Super Rugby title now.
They used to boast across the ditch in Australia that John “Nobody” Eales was simply perfect (as a lock forward); Read is just about as complete, if you like, as a modern eighth-man.
He has a celebrated rugby brain, great mobility and a knack of choosing great running lines, while not falling short at all in the grunt department, either.
Considerably less seasoned Du Preez is most renowned, of course, for his own physicality, but if he somehow manages to outplay the still undercooked Read with a bright, rounded showing, he will be back on course to challenge favourite Warren Whiteley for the Bok No 8 shirt left vacant for the time being by big Duane Vermeulen.
The 22-year-old probably needs to add a few strings to his skills bow before he can be deemed a really compelling possibility as a Test regular, and a contribution by Du Preez to ball-stealing (the Sharks have no dedicated fetcher) would be welcomed enormously in this QF.
Smart money suggests he will only get a “tutoring” from a true master on Saturday … but rugby matches aren’t always decided by prior expectation, are they? *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing