Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Ruan Combrinck would do well to start shifting up noticeably through the gears.
Still feeling his way back into Super Rugby in some senses after a lengthy layoff, the Lions right wing and occasional fullback should only get increasingly sharper over the next few weeks: a vital phase both for his franchise and his own aspirations of returning to Test favour.
Combrinck got back into the swing of things with the Lions - after nearly seven months on the sidelines with a shoulder injury picked up in Japan - two games ago, helping them trounce the Stormers 52-31 in Johannesburg.
His thunder was stolen to some extent in headline-making terms, of course, by left-wing colleague Madosh Tambwe’s four-try avalanche, although he hearteningly got over the whitewash himself in the 61st minute.
Then the Lions had a bye – welcome for many of his colleagues, less so for obvious reasons for him – ahead of their overseas leg, which has already seen them impressively down the Waratahs 29-0 in Sydney.
Attacking opportunities down Combrinck’s channel didn’t come dime-a-dozen against the ‘Tahs, but he did use the occasion to remind of his tenacity and strength on cover-defence once or twice, as well as sound positional acumen, so it can safely be said that his comeback is on course.
Assuming no further setbacks on the medical front, the gritty customer has five further Super Rugby matches to crank up his charm offensive for a recall to the Springbok mix in the June Test period.
The first of that sequence is against the modest, currently labouring Reds in Brisbane on Saturday (07:05 SA time) – a seemingly very winnable game at a time when the Lions certainly can’t rest on their laurels if they still harbour aspirations of a home semi-final at very least.
At almost 28, Combrinck is seasoned enough in first-class rugby to know that few direct opponents are walkovers, although there is also no special reason for the seven-cap Bok – all earned during 2016 – to view with trepidation an encounter with the Reds’ No 11 Jordan Petaia.
He is an 18-year-old, notable rookie who was still playing for Australian Schoolboys last year, although he is a pretty tall unit at 1.90m and reportedly tipping the scales at roughly Combrinck’s weight -- a shade under 100kg.
Petaia was first picked by coach Brad Thorn at the start of the month, as a substitute against Australian conference rivals the Brumbies, and this will be his first experience of South African opposition in Super Rugby.
But it is a one-on-one scrap -- among quite a few others on Saturday, frankly – that the Lions should dominate if they are suitably switched-on mentally.
Several stiffer obstacles lie ahead, both for Combrinck and his side, before the June recess in the competition.
That should suit the wing in several respects, as excelling personally against the Hurricanes and Highlanders (both in New Zealand) and then Brumbies and Stormers back on South African soil really ought to be a passport back into very forceful Springbok contention for him.
Combrinck has appeal not just because he brings the particularly useful attribute of a healthy feel for the fullback’s responsibilities as well, but due to his solid physique in a back three.
That is a department where the Boks too often came up glaringly short for long periods of Allister Coetzee’s coaching tenure, and successor Rassie Erasmus is highly likely to want to “bulk up” a bit in that area without sacrificing too much in the way of stealth and elusiveness.
During Coetzee’s two-year tenure, defensive consistency and general strength in contact by his wings, especially, was anything but satisfying.
You could also say with some conviction that, right now, there are vacancies aplenty in those wide berths for the Bok cause, especially following much-publicised confirmation this week that veteran Test great Bryan Habana (a massive 124 caps) is quitting rugby imminently.
Another frequently-used recent Bok, Raymond Rhule, has just been dropped entirely from the Stormers’ match-day squad for their Newlands clash with the Rebels – seemingly a confirmation, more than anything else, of his defence still not nearly enough matching his qualities on the offensive.
Bear in mind also that the two wings (Dillyn Leyds and Warrick Gelant) who started the last Bok Test, the end-of-year defeat against Wales in Cardiff, are highly unlikely to see those berths again when Erasmus gets his 2018 green-and-gold programme into action.
Versatile Leyds has been relatively innocuous for the Stormers this season, and shifted back into the No 15 jersey of late anyway, whilst Gelant has been a revelation back in his more customary spot in the last line of defence for the Bulls – he must be a front-runner for that position at Test level in June.
Yes, the timing seems perfect for Combrinck to keeping amassing that head of steam …
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