Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn have shown enormous promise as a partnership over the first four rounds of the Super 14.
And the Sharks have ample reason to smile at this stage because the pair are not their only outstanding features to date.
The pack’s performances have established the platform which allows scrumhalf Rory Kockott to clear scrums and rucks quickly. This in turn provides the aforementioned 10-12 axis time and space to operate.
Kockott has arguably been the tournament’s best scrumhalf. From a South African perspective he’s edged the Bulls’ Fourie du Preez and left the Stormers’ Ricky Januarie in his dust. Springbok coach Peter de Villiers is unlikely to look beyond Du Preez as his starting option for the British & Irish Lions tour, but Kockott must surely surpass Januarie as cover for Du Preez if his form continues as it has.
The return to form of JP Pietersen will be particularly pleasing for the Sharks. While wingers will always be measured primarily by the number of tries they score (Pietersen has scored four tries in four matches), his all round play has returned to the level it was at in 2007.
However, it’s Pienaar and Steyn’s thriving partnership that will be most satisfying, both from the perspective of the Sharks’ continued success and in the larger national picture.
Much was made of Pienaar’s shift to flyhalf from scrumhalf at the end of 2008, with a string of respected commentators believing that he has all the necessary attributes to be successful at both Super 14 and Test level.
He is still in the infancy of his career at pivot and to make an absolute judgement now would be foolish. But the early signs are certainly encouraging. The manner in which he controlled the flow of their match against the Blues in Auckland was outstanding. His decision making under pressure was sharp and he varied his game well.
One concern raised at the time of his positional shift was that his tactical kicking may need significant attention. But he has been very good throughout the tournament in this facet of play, particularly in Auckland, where he eased the pressure on his side by driving the Blues back into their own half.
The Pienaar-Steyn combination is one that captured the imagination from the time coach John Plumtree announced that he would pair them. And they haven’t disappointed.
One has to commend Plumtree and De Villiers for taking a stand and determining that inside centre is Steyn’s strongest position. His performances at 12 have been a throwback to those of the 2007 World Cup, where he deputised brilliantly for the injured Jean de Villiers.
He’s offered the Sharks a powerful ball carrying option when they opt to play directly, often committing two defenders and freeing up space for his outside backs, and has also been a good distributor when asked to play expansively.
He has also kicked well tactically when required to do so, and given that the modern game dictates that your inside centre has the same skill set as a flyhalf, the Sharks seem to have got it spot on with Steyn.
Plumtree, speaking to keo.co.za earlier in the season, said he believed that given time to settle into the role, Steyn could oust incumbent Springbok 12 Jean de Villiers for the Springbok berth. De Villiers has been one of the few good performers in a poor Stormers side and is likely to keep his place for the Lions tour. But Steyn’s form will pressure De Villiers to maintain a high standard. From that perspective it is a massively positive thing for Springbok rugby.
If, as we have been led to believe, Steyn and Pienaar are the future of Springbok rugby in their respective positions – they certainly have given us reason to be very optimistic about the future.
By Ryan Vrede