Breaking new ground

JON CARDINELLI, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says Andries Bekker has taken his game to a whole new level.

In a rugby team of fictional characters, the BFG wouldn’t make the bench. Roald Dahl’s giant had the reach and height, but lacked the bloody-mindedness of an archetypal tight forward.

Until last year, Andries Bekker was the BFG of South African rugby. He had the height and, as seen by his lineout exploits at regional and Test level, he had the reach. But something was missing. There was no physical presence about Bekker. The tallest player in Springbok history at 2.08m, and one of the heavier incumbents at 122kg, he wasn’t using that formidable frame to full effect. Something needed to change.

Stormers assistant coach Matt Proudfoot recalls the hours of planning and practice that would culminate in a powerful transformation.The Stormers were hailed as one of the more physical teams in 2010 and have maintained that reputation in 2011, and Bekker has been at the forefront of a more robust approach.

‘He’s a great athlete, but he’s also a big, tall guy who attracts more than one defender,’ says Proudfoot. ‘We realised that he could be an asset if he improved his ball-in-contact skills to the point where he could take the tackle, and then make the offload. By developing that skill set, he’d be doubly dangerous with support players running off him.’

If not for a serious back injury that sidelined him for seven months, Bekker would have played more than just three Tests in 2010. Bok forwards coach Gary Gold had been tracking his progress in the 2010 Super 14, and was thrilled with the change in attitude. He continues to monitor Bekker in the 2011 competition, and is pleased to report that the Stormers lock is making some colossal contributions.

‘When you talk about a player’s physicality, you judge him in three areas,’ explains Gold. ‘Firstly, you look at his ball-carrying ability and how often he gets over the advantage line. Secondly, you look at his tackling ability and how many times he stops opponents dead, and how many times he knocks them back. Thirdly, you look at his body position at the ruck and how he effects a cleanout. Andries made an incredible improvement in 2010, and he’s carried that form through to this year’s competition too.

‘You can see how the Stormers use him to create attacking continuity. Andries may not make many linebreaks, but it’s his ability to get over the gainline and free up his arms that creates linebreaks for his support runners.’

Bekker has bulked up with muscle, and is delivering more offensive hits than he used to. After six weeks of Super Rugby, his defensive stats made for impressive reading if you consider that 15% of his tackles were offensive hits. It’s a high percentage for a lock, and he’s been right up there with the more physical second rowers in South Africa.

‘But his physicality hasn’t affected his work rate,’ says Gold, keen to clarify that Bekker’s physical ambition hasn’t compromised his natural mobility. ‘Because some locks are making those offensive hits, they might not have as high a work rate around the park. Andries has remained mobile and does a lot of work at the breakdown. He makes 45 contributions per game which is high for a lock if you remember that the top loose forwards average 60 to 70 per game.’

All this praise needs some context. Not too long ago, the Stormers were regularly pummelled by teams like the Bulls and Sharks because their tight forwards were more flash than grunt, and Bekker was a long-standing member of what was infamously known as the ‘light five’. But when Rassie Erasmus arrived in 2008 and installed a new culture, that started to change. Three years on, and the Stormers have one of the best packs in the southern hemisphere.

Bekker admits that his motivation to evolve is rooted in national as well as regional ambition. Three years ago, nobody would have thought to measure Bekker against Bakkies Botha, as it’s akin to comparing a poodle with a pit bull. Much has changed, and while Bekker will never be Botha, he can provide the Boks with a quality alternative at No 4.

‘No 5 is my position at the Stormers, but I’ll play wherever I’m needed at the Boks,’ he says. ‘At the beginning of last season, I knew that with Victor and Bakkies dominating the starting positions, I would have to be more versatile if I was going to make the Bok bench. I knew that if I could improve my physical game and be considered a replacement to Bakkies as well as Victor, I would improve my chances of making the Bok 22.’

Nevertheless, Bekker’s injury-enforced absence provided opportunities for Flip van der Merwe and Alistair Hargreaves. While Gold was impressed with the performances of these rookies, he admits that Bekker has progressed to the point where he can do a job for the Boks at front lock.

‘I believe he can complement any lock in the world,’ says Gold. ‘Nowadays, the No 5 is the more nimble of the pair while the No 4 does the hard graft, but Andries has shown that he is no slouch in the physical stakes. If he continues in this vein, he will continue to push for a place in either locking position at national level. He’s made himself even more valuable by developing that physical side of his game, and Victor and Bakkies know that they have to maintain their high standards if they’re going to keep him out of the starting XV.’

Matfield will be remembered as a Test legend, and his mentoring of Bekker over the past three seasons will ensure that his legacy lives on.

While the roles of student and master are clearly defined at Test level, there  is no quarter given when the Bulls play the Stormers. The most recent clash between these two rivals witnessed a particularly intriguing duel between Matfield and Bekker, and it was a compliment to the latter that Matfield went to near-bizarre lengths to secure quality lineout ball.

There’s always plenty of analysis before a traditional north-south derby. Two weeks before the Stormers travelled to Loftus, Bekker was meeting with the Stormers’ coaches and discussing the Bulls’ lineout calls and systems. The Cape side didn’t have a great day when it came to their own feed, but they did manage to disrupt the Bulls.

‘I’ve learnt so much from Vic,’ says Bekker. ‘He’s somebody I’ve always admired, especially the contesting side of his game. I have picked up some of his habits, because I realise you need to put in the extra work if you want to see the results.

‘I owe a lot to guys like Vic, Matt Proudfoot and especially a lineout genius like Rassie Erasmus. But all top sportsmen want to bring something new to their position and make it their own. I’ve played under Vic for three years and I have a tremendous respect for him and realise that he’s the best in the world, but at the same time, I know that if the opportunity presents itself, I’m ready to make the step up. When he retires, I’m ready to take on the responsibility.’

Erasmus confirms that Bekker’s great strides have not been limited to the physical realm.

‘Andries is probably one of the tallest players in the world, and is also one of the most naturally talented forwards in the game,’ Erasmus begins, in explaining Bekker’s progress. ‘At the start of his career, perhaps that size and skill worked to his detriment in terms of developing the other aspects. He relied a lot on his height and his natural ability to win lineout ball. What’s really improved in the past year or so is his understanding of lineout systems, and how to react differently in certain situations.

‘He does his homework, but he also makes the on-field calls and reacts quickly in a game situation. Even if you study an opponent, it’s likely that they will try something different, and so you need a player who can recognise those changes and adjust accordingly.’

Proudfoot has also noticed a change in Bekker’s approach to the lineout. Like Matfield, Bekker is the set-piece ringmaster as well as its star act.

‘Last year, he tried to beat opponents all by himself. Even when opponents were double-teaming him, he’d try and win the ball. He’s now realised that there’s more to it than that. He’s starting to out-think opponents at the lineout, and deploy his own team-mates cleverly. It’s a real sign of maturity,’ Proudfoot says.

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers will announce his World Cup squad on 23 August, and while Botha and Matfield are certainties, the contest is heating up for those last two lock spots. Bekker is contracted to the Boks and looks likely to make the cut, but he won’t take anything for granted.

‘Forget about Victor and Bakkies – Flip van der Merwe and Alistair Hargreaves have already played for South Africa and will be pushing for a place,’ he says. ‘Danie Rossouw is another who has won a World Cup and had a great season in 2010.

‘The Springboks are going to New Zealand to defend their world title, and I want to be a part of that. I can’t just assume that I will get selected. I need to make sure I have a good Super Rugby competition. Every game between now and the World Cup counts.’

– This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine. The June issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 18 May.
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