RYAN VREDE writes Bismarck du Plessis has ended the debate around who should start at hooker for the Springboks with a series of strong showings that culminated in a masterclass against the Stormers.
Du Plessis started the Sharks’ campaign slowly, being outplayed by the Bulls’ Chiliboy Ralepelle in their contest at Loftus in round one and being consistently outshone by the other pretender to the Springbok No 2 shirt, Adriaan Strauss, thereafter.
I expressed concerns that, in John Smit’s absence, Du Plessis wasn’t able to rouse himself to deliver the standard of performance that made him the best hooker in the world in 2011. I began to wonder whether he was the type of player who only thrived in the face of perceived injustice and adversity, but struggled to attain the same level in the absence thereof. Ma’a Nonu is the most notable example of a player of this ilk.
But in recent weeks Du Plessis has allayed those fears, reminding of his class and destructive, match-winning potential. Super Rugby is not Test rugby and usually few absolute judgements can be made on a player’s form in the latter when assessing his suitability for the former. Not so with Du Plessis, whose aptitude for Test rugby has already been confirmed. His recent showings have only served to reinforce his value to the Springboks.
Willem Alberts stole the show at Kings Park with his outstanding performance against the Stormers in the most critical of victories. But Du Plessis would have been a worthy recipient of the Man of the Match award. His performance was as complete as you’ll find for a modern hooker – his lineout feed was tidy, his defence brutal, his scrummaging powerful and his ball carrying unfailingly effective (when he didn’t get over the gainline it was because multiple defenders were assigned to him, which created holes to exploit in the defensive line). He also offered the Sharks an additional and effective fetching option, which was invaluable to his team’s cause.
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer should not look beyond Du Plessis when his run-on sides for the England series are announced, particularly in light of the fact that success in that series will rest more heavily on individual skill, heart and character than it will on astute coaching, given the limited time Meyer will have with his squad. Du Plessis has those attributes in bags.
The pertinent issue now is who will be his deputy. Strauss is highly rated by Meyer and will probably have edged ahead of Ralepelle on the strength of performances in recent weeks. While Strauss undoubtedly has high competency in all aspects of hooker play, his dynamism in the loose will be his biggest asset to the Springboks if introduced in the final quarter of Tests (match situation allowing of course). Ralepelle started strongly but has failed to kick on. He is likely to resume his familiar role of tackle bag holder.