CAPE TOWN - Mark Keohane has looked at the the top six positive and negative take-aways from week 17 of Super Rugby, praising several players for their performances.
1: Sharks hooker Akker van der Merwe’s 60 minutes against the Lions was the individual highlight of a desperate South African Super Rugby weekend in which three of the four teams lost. Van der Merwe, one of national coach Rassie Erasmus’s new Springboks in the June internationals, returned from his first month of Test rugby with even more confidence than he had when Super Rugby ended in May. Van der Merwe was dynamic as a substitute for the Springboks, and he was as imposing in a starting role for the Sharks. He and Stormers hooker Bongi Mbonambi have been among the two biggest movers in the national playing stocks.
2: Warren Whiteley’s leadership and presence is just massive for the Lions. Equally Malcolm Marx’s inclusion in any team. The Lions and Springboks duo returned to Super Rugby after an extended absence and were a class act. Whiteley, if he can get through the next month, will definitely start the Rugby Championship at No 8 in place of the unavailable Duane Vermeulen. Marx, if he is injury free, will also wear the No 2 jersey. It’s worth a rave any time Whiteley and Marx are playing and they are players who make any match day squad stronger.
3: The Bulls’s Handre Pollard and Jesse Kriel looked like Test giants playing alongside club dwarfs in the Bulls’s shocking loss to a Sunwolves team that had more Kiwi and South Africans on the scoresheet than Japanese players. Pollard, in the best physical condition of his professional career, has again found the strut that made him the world’s best under 20 player. Kriel, who started the international season behind Sharks outside centre Lukhanyo Am, has made up ground and is currently shading Am as the starting No 13 for the Rugby Championship.
1: The Stormers are a team in decline and the regression over the last six months is alarming. The quality of player that took the field in Buenos Aires should have commanded a greater return against the Jaguares who, in the guise of the Pumas, took an absolute beating against Wales and Scotland in June. The very same players who were smashed playing Test rugby were made to look like monsters against the Stormers. Robbie Fleck, as head coach, was given a three-year extension, before a ball had been passed or kicked in 2018. How?
2: South African players, larger than life when playing at home, are pathetic away from home. Mentally they are fragile and it’s in the top six inches where South Africa’s players remain so far behind their New Zealand Super Rugby opponents. New Zealand’s franchise players, consistently, have shown an ability to front away from home and be successful. South Africa’s best, by contrast, turn into some of the worst, as was again evident with the Bulls and Stormers respective defeats. It was a similar situation when the Springboks played Wales in the United States. New Zealand rugby, more than a decade ago, invested heavily in sports psychologists. South Africa has to find head doctors of similar ilk.
3: Zelim Nel took to Twitter to visually illustrate another referee howler in a weekend of so many. Nel posted two pictures of a pass going six metres forward in the build-up to a Sunwolves try against the Bulls. The referee was running on the inside of the passer and in line with the ball trajectory, and he didn’t even blink. Nel’s tweets are always insightful but as he wrote you didn’t need insight to spot THAT pass was forward; just one good eye.