Heinrich Brüssow’s season-ending injury is lamentable but in Deon Stegmann there is a ready made replacement for the Springboks.
Brüssow tore knee ligaments in Saturday’s clash with the Hurricanes. The injury is severe enough to sideline him for at least six months, with scans on Monday expected to confirm that and possibly add weeks onto the recovery period.
Brüssow was a revelation in his rookie Test season in 2009, excelling in an unexpected opportunity in the first Test against the British & Irish Lions, then gradually improving to the point where convincing arguments where being made for him being the finest openside flank on the planet.
His consistent excellence reduced Schalk Burger, previously thought to be indispensable to the Springboks, to a bench role when he recovered from the injury that gave Brüssow the opportunity against the Lions, and he sustained that form into 2010 (prior to his injury), raising the question of whether Burger would spend another season watching Tests from an unfamiliar vantage point.
Brüssow’s loss is a massive one for the Cheetahs and Springboks. His technical skill has been discussed at length, while his deep resolve to ensure his side wins has driven him to feats bordering on the supernatural.
However, his loss does not present an insurmountable challenge. Stegmann is a natural successor who will offer the Springboks all the technical attributes Brüssow did, and shares his tactical intelligence and will to win.
In the last four seasons, two of which he has been a regular starter; Stegmann has proven his aptitude for Super Rugby. In fact, in the Bulls’ championship winning run in 2009, Stegmann routinely outplayed more vaunted opposition opensiders, and seemed to raise his performance further yet for the semi-final and final (before an injury ended his participation), suggesting a capacity to not only cope, but also excel in pressure situations.
He regularly leads the tackle count, turnover and work rate stats at the Bulls, registering numbers that are above average for players in his position.
The new breakdown law interpretations, which favour the attacking team (i.e. the team taking the ball into a ruck situation) have diluted the potency of some of the best fetchers in the business. Yet Stegmann has circumvented the challenge, with the aid of some astute tactics from the Bulls’ coaching staff, by only committing himself to the breakdown turnover after the third phase, where cleaners are in shorter supply.
Furthermore, he is also a capable ball carrier, and given that the aforementioned law interpretations demand that your openside flank be adept in this regard, where previously they were primarily deployed as defensive weapons who sought to slow the ruck recycle or turn over possession, makes him invaluable to Bulls, and this should be his appeal to the Springbok selectors.
Stegmann was at the heart of the Bulls’ success in 2009. Provided he stays fit and in form, he must be given an opportunity to add similar value to the Springboks.
By Ryan Vrede