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When this Springbok tour of Europe wraps up on Saturday and report cards on the players are drawn up, there will be a number of men who’ll score fairly high marks.
Up there will be Zane Kirchner, a player heavily criticised this season but a man who’s ticked every box in his coach’s book.
There are Bok players who’ve received far more praise and won Man of the Match awards and been singled out for special mention – the likes of Adriaan Strauss, Eben Etzebeth, Francois Louw and Bryan Habana this season, and deservedly so – but doing his business in a quiet fashion at fullback has been Kirchner, one of the true unsung heroes of the team this season.
Despite all the criticism levelled at him and coach Heyneke Meyer for picking the Blue Bulls man, the Bok boss has stuck to his convictions and pretty much entrenched Kirchner in the fullback role.
And for good reason. Kirchner doesn’t feel the pressure, he hardly makes mistakes, he’s always strong under the high ball, he chases up-and-unders with real purpose and he kicks well out of hand.
In all, Kirchner is the complete fullback, whether South African rugby fans like it or not. The fact that he’s not an attacking threat is not because he can’t play a running game and doesn’t want to put pressure on the opposition through counter-attacking from deep, but because he’s under instruction to play the percentage game rather than the speculative one.
Whether Meyer is right or wrong in this regard is debatable ... but let’s be honest, Kirchner has not put a foot wrong since making the No15 jersey his own.
The feeling in the Bok camp is that with Kirchner at 15, there’s no need to worry about the last line of defence: Kirchner will do what Kirchner does best – be rock solid.
Critics tend to forget that when the 28-year-old joined the Bulls from Griquas five years ago, it was his powerful running that caught the eye of the scouts and the coaching team in Pretoria and he hasn’t let anyone down who lured him to Loftus, being a regular try-scorer in Super Rugby.
Meyer’s also spot-on when he says defences are simply too tight nowadays to expect fullbacks to make sweeping runs, cutting the opposition apart.
“It doesn’t happen at this level anymore. Perceptions that a guy can run through a whole team are wrong ... defences are just too good,” said Meyer.
But that he’s been very satisfied with Kirchner’s output at No15 is reflected in the fact that the Bulls man has kept the jersey, ahead of the young and promising Jaco Taute, who’s on this tour, and also ahead of the likes of Gio Aplon, Joe Pietersen and a few others.
“Zane’s had to endure plenty of criticism and a lot of pressure, but he’s consistently been one of our best players this season,” said Meyer.
“Defensively he’s been awesome, and that’s what you want from your fullback, and his kicking game has been great. He’s been a real warrior for us and I’m very happy with the way he’s played.”
However, it was the following comment that provided the reason why Meyer has stuck with Kirchner this season and why he will probably continue to do so in 2013: “For a coach, it’s great knowing that Zane is at the back ... he just doesn’t make mistakes.”
Granted, Kirchner may not be as flashy as a number of other fullbacks doing the rounds in South Africa – even though he is fully capable of playing an expansive, attack-based game – but he’s the rock on which the Bok back division is built.
And you can’t blame Meyer for wanting a solid, indestructible foundation from which to build on.
If, with all the young No10s looking to play at flyhalf, Morné Steyn is Meyer’s “insurance policy” in the position, then Kirchner is his “comforter” at fullback. – Saturday Star