Boks to bank on bitter rivals

The bulk of this year’s Springbok squad should comprise of Bulls and Stormers players.

It’s a no-brainer when you consider the form of these two teams in the 2010 Super 14. After round 10, the Bulls and Stormers are in contention for a home play-off while the Sharks are struggling to salvage some respect with a mid-table finish. Typically, the Lions and Cheetahs are scrapping to avoid the wooden spoon.

Bok coach Peter de Villiers is unlikely to discard his favourites just because of the poor performances of the Sharks and Cheetahs. Expect to see John Smit, Bismarck du Plessis, Beast Mtawarrira, Ruan Pienaar, JP Pietersen and Juan Smith in the mix this season, but if the Bok selectors are going to reward form, they need look no further than South Africa’s greatest rivals.

Bakkies Botha will be back from injury shortly, but Andries Bekker has given De Villiers food for thought with his tremendous efforts for the Stormers. A natural No 5, Bekker has been the money man in a great Stormers lineout and made some thrilling bursts in open play. Importantly, he’s stepped up in the physical department, defying those critics who said he couldn’t play a tighter role.

I criticised De Villiers for playing Bekker in tandem with Victor Matfield last year, and at the time the criticism was justified. Bekker’s showing in 2010 suggests the skyscraping lock could dovetail with Matfield should Botha be rested or injured at any point this season.

Francois Louw has been thumping on the door for some time, and under the new laws his ball-stealing threat in the blindside position has been amplified. With Heinrich Brussow sidelined because of a knee injury, the abrasive Schalk Burger is an automatic selection at openside and is complemented by Louw. The Cheetahs’ Smith may still be the incumbent, but Louw’s breakdown ability and lineout prowess make for an interesting alternative.

In a long international season, De Villiers should also be considering alternatives up front. Smit has played his best rugby at loosehead this year while the surprising standout at tighthead has been the Stormers’ Brok Harris. There are doubts of his ability to compete at the next level at this stage of his career, but in the 2010 competition, he’s been the best of an average South African lot.

Gurthro Steenkamp has improved from a scrumming and ball-carrying perspective while Tiaan Liebenberg has taken these aspects to new levels. The robust Stormers No 2 must wear a Bok jersey this year, as his penetrative runs always get his team across the gain line.

Ryan Kankowski’s early season form reignited the debate over the No 8 position, but his tournament-ending injury and the powerful showings of Pierre Spies confirm the incumbent will hold sway. Spies has been one of South Africa’s standouts and will be a key member when the Bulls feature in the play-offs.

The halfback pair that toured Europe last November have been at the heart of the Bulls’ success in 2010, and Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn will be asked to do a similar job for the Boks. Steyn has battled in recent weeks but is still the best available.

The Lions and Sharks have imported flyhalves while the Cheetahs’ Naas Olivier is barely up to the Super 14 grade which means the only man pushing Steyn for that No 10 jersey is Peter Grant. The Stormers’ flyhalf has provided the usual go-forward with ball in hand, but has improved his tactical punts and goal-kicking.

Juan de Jongh’s made a fantastic impact at No 12 but his quick feet and turn of speed should see him challenging for the outside centre position at the highest level. Wynand Olivier has performed a dual role for the Bulls: crashing it up to lay the platform or chucking it wide when the run is on. Jean de Villiers will return to South Africa when his stint with Munster ends, but he’ll have to fight hard to win back that starting Bok jersey.

Jaque Fourie and Bryan Habana have lifted the Stormers’ backline and are starting to show their best form, and Zane Kirchner has been solid at the back for the Bulls. Again, much depends on Frans Steyn’s availability (he’s currently contracted to Racing Metro for another two years) because his boot, bulk and attacking flair need to be utilised by the Boks in some capacity.

The biggest bolter come the first squad announcement could be Gerhard van den Heever, as the young speedster possesses an uncoachable ability to finish. Other uncapped players that deserve a look include Dewaldt Duvenage, a player who has the skill-set to slot into a Bok game plan, and Flip van der Merwe, the Bulls’ underrated second-rower.

De Villiers has a tough task ahead in 2010 and in the build up to the 2011 World Cup. The additional fixtures against Wales in June and the Barbarians in December will test his management skills, and there’s no doubt an extended squad will be needed to cope with the heavy workload.

The one-off Test against France, the Tri-Nations, and the Grand Slam Test against Ireland should be viewed as the priorities for senior players. Fixtures against Italy and Scotland, and even the international season opener against Wales should be used to test new combinations and give other players a look before 2011.

Bok form XV – After 10 rounds
15 Zane Kirchner (Bulls)
14 Gerhard van den Heever (Bulls)
13 Jaque Fourie (Stormers)
12 Wynand Olivier (Bulls)
11 Bryan Habana (Stormers)
10 Morne Steyn (Bulls)
9 Fourie du Preez (Bulls)
8 Pierre Spies (Bulls)
7 Francois Louw (Stormers)
6 Schalk Burger (Stormers)
5 Victor Matfield (Bulls)
4 Andries Bekker (Stormers)
3 Brok Harris (Stormers)
2 Tiaan Liebenberg (Stormers)
1 Gurthro Steenkamp (Bulls)

By Jon Cardinelli