JOHANNESBURG – Excitement is building ahead of Saturday’s Gauteng Super Rugby derby where the two-time runners-up, the Lions, face up to the three-time winners, the Bulls, at Loftus in Pretoria.
There are plenty of storylines to get the fans pumped up and here rugby writer Jacques van der Westhuyzen highlights the key backline battles that could go a long way in determining who comes out on top:
Jesse Kriel versus Lionel Mapoe
The head to head at No 13 sees the Springbok first choice man for most of last season come up against a player who’s had a look-in at Test level, but never fully been backed.
What a battle lies in store at outside centre.
Kriel has all the skills and pace to be an outstanding player, but there are still many rugby observers out there in South Africa who believe he is better suited to wing or fullback.
New Bulls coach John Mitchell though has gone with him at centre, too - like former Springbok coach Allister Coetzee did - and Kriel didn’t disappoint last weekend.
After a rather iffy 2017 season the 24-year-old, with 29 Test caps already, shone in his first outing this season last week - and that against the powerful Hurricanes. Kriel certainly got many viewers’ vote for best performer at No 13 at the weekend (or at least among the SA centres) with a quality showing, but there were many who still felt Mapoe was better.
The Lions man backed up a quality performance in round one against the Sharks (when he scored two tries) with an equally good showing against the Jaguares, having a hand in more than one Lions try - and they got a few on the day.
Mapoe must be one of the most under-rated performers in local rugby, but he performs consistently well from one week to the next and hardly puts a foot wrong. The fact that he’s earned only 12 Test caps is quite unbelievable considering how well he’s played for the Lions in the last five years. Not only is he quick off the mark, he runs great lines and makes good decisions.
It should be a cracking showdown between the two outside centres ... and will definitely be viewed as a mini Springbok trial - by the players and everyone watching the game.
Handre Pollard versus Elton Jantjies
Robert du Preez, Damian Willemse ... heck, even overseas-based players Pat Lambie and Frans Steyn ... will all have their supporters, but it seems a clear shoot-out between Pollard and Jantjies for the Bok No 10 jersey this year.
Jantjies has been the man in the hot seat for two years now as Pollard recovered from injury, but now that both are fit and firing in Super Rugby the national No 10 shirt is again up for grabs.
Pollard fans will feel he was the man picked for the job a few years ago before injury struck and should be the first-choice man again, while Jantjies’ supporters will say he has the attacking game, X-factor and has done little wrong to be bumped down.
It all adds up to a hugely interesting showdown on Saturday. Not only will both men’s physical and technical abilities be on show but their mental strength as well; it’s a big game with a lot riding on the result - if nothing else, their pride is on the line.
Both men have shown they can attack the advantage line - and both will be encouraged to do so by their coaches at the weekend - while they’re also sound in defence and have all the distribution skills to put away the men on their outside.
With regards to their kicking, both have started the year strongly with solid displays, but it is Jantjies who possibly has a few more tricks up his sleeve. He’s already executed a few cross-field kicks to his wings this season and expect more of the same this weekend.
Who’ll out-smart who on Saturday and show they are ready to be the No 10 in Rassie Erasmus’ new-look Bok team of 2018? It’s going to be a fascinating duel.