South African players will want to put their best foot forward and impress Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer this weekend.
With the British and Irish Lions tour Down Under in June necessitating an earlier than usual start to the season, with just two Australian derbies making up Round One, the 2013 Super Rugby campaign truly gets underway this weekend with a full quota of seven matches.
Three of those involve South African sides, two of which are mouth-watering local derbies with the third being a historic clash in Port Elizabeth.
From a South African perspective they don’t come any bigger than Friday’s north-south derby between the Bulls and the Stormers at Loftus Versfeld.
It’s therefore fitting that this crunch clash kicks off a new-look South African conference that this year includes controversial debutants the Southern Kings.
The Eastern Cape franchise host the Western Force in their first ever Super Rugby match on Saturday evening but not before the Cheetahs and Sharks square off in Bloemfontein.
Bok boss Meyer could not have asked for a better draw to kick-off the year. He’ll be able to scrutinise players’ physicality, composure and tactical nous in the Test-like atmosphere of Friday’s fixture, the play-making ability and attacking prowess that will be on display in Bloemfontein and finally scout talent in the Kings’ clash.
In his first year in charge of the Boks, Meyer, for the most part, identified the players who will form the nucleus of his squad going forward.
A combination of injuries and unconvincing performances, however, resulted in Meyer still mulling over certain players and positions, not least the pivotal flyhalf role.
Solving the No.10 conundrum will be foremost in Meyer’s mind and the four leading candidates could go head-to-head this weekend should Elton Jantjies be thrust straight into the Stormers starting line-up and Johan Goosen be cleared to face the Sharks.
Morné Steyn will be physicality and mentally refreshed after his nightmare 2012 which he started with an iron grip on the No.10 jersey and ended well down in the pivot pecking order.
The eldest of the four flyhalves at 28, the 42-Test veteran will be in his comfort zone at Loftus and will be determined to show Meyer he has more to offer the Boks despite the wave of youth threatening to drown his Bok career.
Pat Lambie, in contrast, went from being considered a specialist fullback to finishing the year as incumbent flyhalf following Steyn’s fall from grace and Goosen’s bad run of injuries.
The other key positional battle at Loftus will pit Pierre Spies against Duane Vermeulen, the man who took over ownership of Spies’s No.8 jersey after the Bulls captain was sidelined with a finger injury.
Vermeulen proved what many had long suspected him to be, a world-class player, in his debut international season and worked particularly well in tandem with Francois Louw.
Spies will still be rusty after his lengthy lay-off and could struggle to match Vermeulen for power and intensity over 80 minutes, but his road back to the Boks nevertheless starts at Loftus this weekend.
Ryan Kankowski, fresh from his stint in
Japan, and Kings captain Luke Watson, meanwhile, will be out to throw their names into the hat at eighthman.
Other delectable duels to look forward to this weekend include Zane Kirchner v Jaco Taute, Juandré Kruger v Andries Bekker, Raymond Rhule v JP Pietersen and (possibly) Coenie Oosthuizen v Jannie du Plessis.
By Quintin van Jaarsveld
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