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    Sharks v Stormers: Hefty clash at 12

    2019-02-27 06:30

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - Andre Esterhuizen, one of the most physically gifted inside centres in Super Rugby, gets an inviting early-season chance for the Sharks on Saturday to push himself closer to the top of the positional pecking order for the Springboks this year.

    Up against him in Durban (17:15 kick-off), after all, is likely to be the Test incumbent, Stormers stalwart Damian de Allende ... and if so it will not be a tussle, as with a few others in the derby, for the faint-hearted.

    Both are sizeable units, even if the 1.94m, 110kg Esterhuizen has the edge over his direct rival (1.89m, 101kg).

    It will be Esterhuizen's second truly bone-crunching clash with a rival No 12 in the space of a week, as his last was with a certain, occasional heavyweight boxer Sonny Bill Williams when the Blues visited last weekend and were comfortably seen off 26-7 by the current overall log-leaders.

    There could be little doubting on the day that the Sharks man had the whip hand in the battle against the 33-year-old All Black veteran, albeit benefiting from the stream of front-foot ball generated by a hard-grafting, driving home pack, especially in the first half as the Aucklanders laboured to find their legs in the sultry conditions.

    Esterhuizen is some nine years Williams' junior, so still on the up, by contrast, and it has seemed fairly clear from the first two Sharks matches - beginning with the Sunwolves in Singapore - that he is benefiting from the less one-dimensional attacking approach sought by the KwaZulu-Natalians this season.

    Say what you like about the possible limitations of both opponents so far, but there is far more fluidity and enterprise to their play, and the players are collectively buying in with enthusiasm.

    Sometimes unfairly, Esterhuizen has a reputation as a "basher" at No 12, but that is primarily because he has the physical gifts to make key yards in that manner in a channel where muscle does come in enormously handy.

    But there have been some deft touches, unorthodox offloads and nice running angles from him in the early stages of 2019, and his alliance with an already bang-in-form Lukhanyo Am in midfield has teed up far more opportunities for the speedsters outside them than was the case in humdrum 2018 for the franchise.

    The cerebral, spatially-aware Am should have a keen tussle of his own at No 13 if the Stormers stick to former SA Sevens star Ruhan Nel in that capacity ... but it is a big "if" because Nel, by contrast, has had a notably disappointing start to Super Rugby despite the hype around him.

    Added to the broad Springbok squad last year, although he remains uncapped, his hands have mysteriously let him down a lot over the course of the respective games against the Bulls at Loftus (heavy loss) and Lions at Newlands (last-ditch grab of the spoils), and it is possible Nel will make way for someone like Dan du Plessis later in the week when the Stormers team is announced.

    While De Allende is easily the most experienced international of all four likely starting centres on view at Kings Park this Saturday, he has also been more error-prone than Bok coach Rassie Erasmus would like him to be in the first couple of Super Rugby fixtures.

    On the plus side, he has at least carried the ball committedly, but if he wants to outsmart Esterhuizen on Saturday, some of his more twinkle-toed evasive qualities on attack would probably serve him well.

    In his defence, he has been as hamstrung as several backline colleagues in the Stormers ranks by the vagueness - and tangible lack of rhythm - of their attacking script thus far. The Stormers, remember, sport a solitary try so far to the 10 dotted down, many of them majestically, by the Sharks.

    Although the name of Montpellier-based class act Jan Serfontein understandably keeps coming up as a World Cup 2019 possible (he can operate in either of a No 12 or 13 jersey), Esterhuizen will make a compelling case for seizing the inside centre berth from De Allende if he keeps adding more mysterious elements, if you like, to his game this season.

    He was on the moderate-success Bok end-of-year tour in 2018, although he only got on the park briefly in the unlucky, controversial defeat to England and will be best remembered for just how well he absorbed the collision with Owen Farrell's cynical (but crucially unpunished) high shoulder late on.

    De Allende, now with 37 Bok appearances, began that encounter and it was his liveliest of the entire tour, before his game fell away to a disappointing degree against each of France, Scotland and Wales.

    The year remains in its rugby infancy, but might Saturday only deepen the call for a changing of the guard at Springbok No 12?

    De Allende has more to lose right now than Esterhuizen ...

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Fixtures

    Friday, 22 March 2019
    • Blues v Highlanders, Eden Park 08:35
    Saturday, 23 March 2019
    • Hurricanes v Stormers, Westpac Stadium 08:35
    • Waratahs v Crusaders, Sydney Cricket Ground 10:45
    • Sunwolves v Lions, Singapore National Stadium 12:55
    • Bulls v Chiefs, Loftus Versfeld 15:05
    • Sharks v Rebels, Jonsson Kings Park Stadium 17:15
    Sunday, 24 March 2019
    • Reds v Brumbies, Suncorp Stadium 07:05

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