WP count on tight five
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By Zelim Nel
It came as no surprise to captain Luke Watson that Western Province's tight five last week delivered a stand-up performance to down the defending Currie Cup champions at Newlands.
"They've come under criticism over the past couple of seasons," said Watson after the match.
"But if you have a look at the end of the Super 14 and how the guys played against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein (Super 14), and against the British & Irish Lions, and then again (Sharks), our tight five are putting their hands up in Currie Cup rugby."
It's difficult to remember when last a WP team was respected for being hard-working and tough, but in this regard forwards coach Mathew Proudfoot credited the players for their commitment to winning the trophy this season.
"What you're seeing now is the result of good work ethic," Proudfoot, the former Scotland and Bulls tighthead prop said on Tuesday.
"The amount of work the team put in during the preseason is coming through for us now, they worked incredibly hard."
WP senior coach Rassie Erasmus must be credited with the off-season acquisition of 67-cap All Blacks lock Chris Jack and former Lions lineout man Anton van Zyl, both of whom had a telling effect on the Sharks match in their first outing in the blue and white hoops.
The Kiwi joined up with the team just days before their season-opener, and some pundits questioned the prudence of slotting him straight into the starting lineup.
"People don't realise how difficult it must have been for Chris to rock up on Monday, learn every single move and every single lineout call, play against the Currie Cup champions, and then get man-of-the-match," said Watson.
"It's a massive feather in his cap that he was able to do that - his professionalism is second to none."
Western Province fans will be hoping for a similar performance from Jack and the tight five on Saturday when the team runs out at Loftus Versfeld to face the Blue Bulls.
"He (Jack) is a world class player," said Blue Bulls forward coach Johan van Graan.
"His game-breaking ability is vital for any team and his experience will add a lot of value to Western Province."
"But I don't think they get enough credit for having developed quite a good tight five during the Super 14 - we won't just focus on Chris Jack alone, but their pack as a whole."
A spate of injuries gifted props Wicus Blaauw and Brok Harris an opportunity to settle into the front row for the latter part of the Stormers' campaign, and this Super 14 experience has seen the front row - led by hooker Tiaan Liebenberg - emerge as a formidable unit.
"The evolution of the pack started in the Super 14," Proudfoot said.
"The players are maturing in their roles, and by giving them an opportunity to express themselves - so that the props are not just fatties who scrum - Wicus and Brok have now got specific roles that actually help the team.
"Brok has done really well, and I believe that he's a guy that can go all the way. Brian Mujati has just started training again (neck injury) and he should be back again next week - he's a massive piece of meat, and there's a couple of guys playing Under-21s who also have a lot of potential.
"For front rowers, nothing conditions you like the game, and for guys like Wicus and Brok it's like gold playing in the Currie cup - there's that old saying that a prop never learns something until somebody gives him a lesson."
Proudfoot will be wanting to teach his former team a few lessons this weekend, but he was under no illusions as to what it will take to overcome a Bulls side that prides itself on a conservative, low-risk approach.
"The Bulls have a philosophy of execution above innovation, no matter who they face. We know what they're about, what they'll be doing and what we'll face, but we still have to stop it," Proudfoot added.