The performances of Fourie du Preez and Pierre Spies in the semi-final underlined their class, while the emergence of Morne Steyn as a genuine match winner is encouraging for both the Bulls and Springboks.
If there was any doubt that Du Preez is the pre-eminent scrumhalf in world rugby before their match against the Crusaders, those were comprehensively dispelled by an 80 minute masterclass. In the last three years Du Preez has progressed from being key member of the Bulls and Springbok sides, to being its fulcrum.
Technically he is unmatched in the game and possesses outstanding vision, composure under pressure and superb leadership to complete a very impressive package.
His attacking and defensive tactical kicking has been central to the Bulls’ success to date, but with his team under immense pressure in the first half of the semi-final, Du Preez recognised the need to keep the ball in hand and duly began picking off his strike runners.
The change in approach aided significantly in his side’s ability to ask more serious questions of a Crusaders defensive line, who, for the first 30 minutes, had been granitic.
His penchant for exposing teams on the blindside is well documented. He has done so on numerous occasions over the course of his Test career, most notably against England in the 2007 World Cup pool game, and more recently for the Bulls against the Sharks, where his sniping breaks culminated in two tries.
It again proved to be a profitable avenue of attack in the semi-final when he went blind and threw a crisp cut-out pass to Zane Kirchner, who in turn dished off to Akona Ndungane for the score that breathed life into their challenge.
South Africa have a number of skilled scrumhalves, but none on the same planet as Du Preez.
He is set to play a major role in the British & Irish Lions series. But it will be a monumental loss and seriously limit the manner in which the Springboks are able to play if he were to be injured prior to or during the series.
However, no assessment of a scrumhalf is complete without noting his combination with his flyhalf. The Du Preez/Steyn paring has been arguably the best in the tournament.
Their understanding now borders on telepathic, while their kicking game has ensured that they have pressured their opposition more they have been under pressure.
Ruan Pienaar is Springbok coach Peter de Villiers’ starting flyhalf, and in his short tenure at pivot the Sharks playmaker has shown touches that suggest he can be a very successful at Test level. For the sake of continuity, Pienaar, if fit, should continue in the role for the British & Irish Lions series. However, there must now be no dispute about his deputy. Steyn has developed into a proven match winner and deserves to be afforded the opportunity to test himself at a higher level.
De Villiers has on numerous occasions stressed that he believes in merit-based selection. If he is to stay true to that commitment, Steyn must be included in his squad for the Lions tour.
The fact that Steyn will be paired with Bulls team-mate Du Preez and the experienced Jean de Villiers on his outside as well as play in a team where the core of the side are Bulls takes some of the risk out of his selection (should he be called on to start). He offers more stability than Earl Rose, and is on par with, and arguably better, than Peter Grant in all facets of play.
The aforementioned Bulls both made telling statements at Loftus on Saturday, and Spies completes the triumvirate.
The Bulls’ No 8 was a devastating ball carrier and excelled in a game whose pattern suited his strengths. There has been justified criticism of him in games which are tight, and it is an area of his game he knows needs to improve. But those improvements are already observable.
He has shown the type of form that had respected commentators lauding him and the press dedicating column inches to him in 2007, and has outshone his prime competitor for the Springboks No 8 shirt, Ryan Kankowski. He’ll start against the Lions and if he carries his form into that series, the Springboks will be even harder to beat.
To highlight the trio seems unfair on a number of outstanding players in the Bulls side – Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Gurthro Steenkamp and Danie Rossouw, whose form and versatility must surely book him a spot on the Springbok bench – being amongst those. But Du Preez and Spies have underlined their class and in the process reinforced their value to the Springboks, while Steyn has made the biggest statement of any uncapped South African to the national selectors.
By Ryan Vrede