Springbok forwards coach Johann van Graan says the time has come for Andries Bekker to establish himself as the world-class lock he has the potential to be.
Bekker debuted for the Springboks in 2008 and was soon being touted as the natural successor to the mercurial Victor Matfield. Indeed he pushed Matfield hard in 2009 and 2010, but was never able to consistently dominate him, the veteran schooling his student in their most high-profile encounters.
Matfield would always speak of Bekker’s technical ability in glowing terms, but privately he always felt he had an advantage over him mentally. Matfield would seldom be found wanting under the sternest examination. Bekker, it is felt within Springbok coaching circles, lacks the mental toughness to match his appreciable technical skill.
Certainly a now chronic back injury and an all too public breakdown of his marriage have contributed to his stuttering ascent, but his capacity to deal with the highest pressure situations remains the biggest stumbling block to him moving out of the shadow the retired Matfield still casts.
Van Graan worked closely with Matfield at the Bulls for nearly a decade and was his right-hand man in many of the late nights spent dissecting the opposition’s lineouts and formulating plans to engineer their demise in this facet of play. He is among those best placed to make the comparison between the two. He intimated that Bekker still has some way to travel in his journey to Matfield’s standard and suggested that this is a defining period in his Test career.
‘Victor was a once in a lifetime player. He brought new things to the lineout and his record speaks for itself,’ Van Graan told keo.co.za. ‘I think the 2010 Super Rugby final in Orlando at that stage pitted the two best lineout jumpers in the game against each other. Andries has had some injuries since. Now it’s time for him to make his mark.’
He did, however, make no secret of his admiration for Bekker, who is likely to start against Argentina at Newlands on Saturday and, fitness permitting, retain the jersey for the remainder of the tournament.
‘Andries brings experience and stability. Credit must got to Juandré Kruger who ran the lineout well against England in a short time. Andries in 2010 and 2011 showed his potential to become one of the great locks of all time. I haven’t worked with him a lot but I’ve been very impressed. He is extremely tall which is a self-evident benefit, he understands the workings of lineouts and as a technical decision maker he has come to the fore. There’s good competition between him and Juandré which is a good thing, as is the fact that they’ve both been under Victor’s wing at different stages of their careers.’
Bekker alone can shape his Test career. Keo.co.za understands that he continues to be hampered by his back ailment and is far from confident in his ability to stay injury-free for an extended period. This has seen him consider cashing in on the limited time he may have left before the injury worsens to the point of forcing his retirement, by taking up one of a number of lucrative offers available to him to play abroad.
The Stormers and Springboks’ medical staff have tailored a programme that seeks to circumvent the triggers for his breakdowns. This, they hope, will give him longevity. They’ve panelbeated his body and I suspect the success or failure thereof will have a telling effect on his mental strength.
As a starting point he needs an extended run of games without suffering a recurrence of the injury. From there he will be better placed to make the mark Van Graan hopes he will.
By Ryan Vrede, in Cape Town