Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – A worthwhile day out for all four sides … but a particularly eye-opening one for eighth-men, perhaps.
That was a slightly more specialist observation you could have made after the robustly-attended Super Hero Sunday pre-season festival at Cape Town Stadium.
While absorbing for the fans and largely constructive for both the winning and losing teams on the day, not too much can be read into how the displays will affect Super Rugby fortunes by the South African quartet in 2019.
Some of the franchises put out stronger starting XVs than others, and the permissible, swollen bench complements tended to be filled with especially more peripheral (third or fourth-choice, often) members of squads.
But the trend in No 8 dynamism began in the early game – played in punishing, almost Durban-like humidity – when Warren Whiteley hit the ground running for the Lions (19-14 victors, just for the record) against the Sharks.
Almost as if playing his 10th game of the season, rather than having a very early hit-out, the mobile captain was very quickly prominent in linking play and in deft off-loading terms, a long-time forte of his, as the Lions sent some encouraging enough signals that they may not be quite ready to surrender their SA-supremacy bragging rights in Super Rugby yet.
Having haemorrhaged experienced campaigners since the 2018 competition, the 31-year-old Whiteley is an absolutely key “remainer” (with apologies to Brexit) in their midst.
He will also be mindful that his Springbok credentials (23 caps so far) remain very appealing, even though rugged Duane Vermeulen has resurfaced in a significant way to potentially monopolise the starting berth at No 8 in this World Cup year.
They are different beasts in playing style, but that very fact could work in Whiteley’s favour for Bok horses-for-courses purposes; Vermeulen’s abrasive style also makes him susceptible to knocks and bumps and he may be “rotated” at times at Test level both before and during RWC 2019 in Japan to keep him fresh for occasions where he is particularly vital.
That said, the bigger specimen got through an agreeably industrious first half himself on his debut for the Bulls in the later kick-off against the Stormers on Sunday, to allay any fears he may be lacking in sharpness ahead of the more red-letter meeting between the same sides at Loftus in 12 days’ time.
Vermeulen,32, covered quite a lot of ground before coach Pote Human rang the changes dramatically at halftime, subbing seven-eighths of his pack and also swapping both his scrumhalves and flyhalves in a game where the Bulls showed promising tenacity to nearly snatch the spoils from a 0-21 situation at the end of the first quarter; they were eventually pipped 33-28.
There were smaller reminders of Vermeulen’s nous in the berth, like the clever way he controls the ball at the back of the scrum (even if under some pressure) and the security he offers in almost unfailingly not coughing it up when he picks it up and makes yards.
Now here’s an intriguing dilemma from the Stormers camp: who starts against the hardened international, once one of them, in just under a fortnight?
On Sunday’s evidence, it is a close-run thing between the still pretty raw but extremely powerful Juarno “Trokkie” Augustus – an inviting physical head-to-head indeed -- and more subtle Sikhumbuzo Notshe.
The 21-year-old Augustus was industrious and assertive himself in first-half opposition to Vermeulen on Sunday, including registering a Malcolm Marx-like, piledriving try through his brute strength near the line.
But then Notshe got a gallop in the position in the second half and the elegant athlete -- perhaps now carrying a bit more muscle? -- also didn’t disappoint.
Near the final whistle in the up-for-grabs affair, he was among Stormers forwards who engineered precious, alert turnovers to arrest budding Bulls momentum towards a winning (or at least levelling) try.
Assuming that Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit, the current Bok first choices as flankers, also operate in those berths for the Capetonians in the Loftus crunch, head coach Robbie Fleck may want a touch more mobility from his No 8 on the usually hard, fast Highveld pitch … which could mean “advantage Notshe” in selection.
Then again, Vermeulen v Augustus would be one for monster truck devotees to get their teeth into with zeal …
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