Fourie and Richie vindicate the theory
That old saying that form is temporary and class is permanent is a load of tosh if you really think about it. There would have been nothing classy about Donald Bradman’s batting had he been asked to play test cricket when he was 90 years of age, and Bryan Habana won’t have his current pace when he’s sixty.
I remember watching Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock, the two finest batsmen ever produced by this country, batting together in a golden oldies game about a decade and a half ago and, again, it didn’t do anything to forward the “class is permanent” argument. Age catches up eventually with everyone.
But there is merit to that saying when the players are young enough, and watching Richie McCaw and Fourie du Preez play this past weekend confirmed my view. Sometimes you just get really special players who are a cut above those around them and who will be capable of retaining their class just so long as their bodies allow them to.
Of course McCaw and Du Preez were in completely different places in terms of where their respective performances fell into the grand plan for both themselves and their national coaches. McCaw is coming off a six-month sabbatical granted to him by his New Zealand employers which was geared towards preserving his body and breathing some freshness and hunger into him.
They got that right on all counts, as McCaw’s well-taken try in the corner, a crucial moment of the All Black/Wallaby game in Sydney, was not his only positive contribution. From the opening minutes it was clear the flanker had lost none of his sharpness and toughness and the try was just the icing on the cake as it capped a superb allround comeback to test rugby.
There was never really going to be any debate about whether McCaw would get back to his best. It was just a question of when he would regain his finest form. The answer has now been delivered – McCaw will be a thorn in the side of all New Zealand’s opponents during the coming months of the Castle Lager Rugby Championships.
Where Du Preez was different was that he wasn’t playing after a sabbatical granted to him by his employers, but was rather coming back after a form of semi-sabbatical that he opted to take himself by moving to the less intense rugby environment in Japan. It will be recalled that Du Preez made no secret when he departed that one of the main motivations was to get away from the continuous bruising rugby and travel that he had to countenance in Super Rugby.
He said as much again when his return to the Springbok fold was announced a fortnight ago, and added that he felt being away from Super Rugby these past two seasons has helped him. It will be recalled that in 2011, his last season with the Boks before going to Japan, he appeared to struggle a bit with a shoulder injury that had kept him sidelined earlier in the year.
There was no sign of that debilitation when Du Preez came onto the field for the last quarter of the rout of Argentina at the FNB Stadium. It is true that by the time he came onto the field the Bok pack was so dominant, and the stream of front-foot possession so steady, that someone’s granny might have almost been able to cope with a role in the backline, but there was still no mistaking the sheer class of the 2007 World Cup-winner and the impact he had on players around him.
A lot of fuss was made of Du Preez’s recall, but as I wrote in my previous column, I could never understand it. Du Preez has done his time in South African rugby, the sport is professional now and, on the initial evidence, he is probably right in saying that his stint in Japan has not only extended his career but also renewed his hunger for the game.
He’s not going to be playing in the away matches of the Rugby Championship, but he will be back for the two remaining home games and then he is available for the three matches on the end of year tour. And, or so we hear, he will be available for a fuller role next season. So what’s the problem? The guy’s a genius, as he would have reminded those who had forgotten it this past weekend.
The strength of the Bok bench was one of several outstanding features of a remarkable win. Adriaan Strauss did enough in the first 60 minutes to thoroughly deserve his man of the match award, but Bismarck du Plessis, when he came on and took on a leadership role in the last 20, was equally as impressive.
Pat Lambie’s introduction as a fullback rather than as a flyhalf was interesting. Willie le Roux was excellent in the first hour, and was the game-breaker early on when the Bok forwards were grinding their Puma opponents down, but for the tighter games that lie ahead don’t be surprised if the pair switch roles – with Lambie starting and Le Roux coming off the bench.
When he first selected Le Roux, Heyneke Meyer told me he saw him as an impact sub going forward – and what a great player he will be to have on the field when the game opens up in the last 20 minutes. While Lambie has of course been trading as a flyhalf over the past while, I have not forgotten that he played fullback at the last World Cup and was good in that position.
Regardless though of which way Meyer goes with that selection when the matches against the Wallabies and All Blacks come around, the fact that at fullback he has two quality players to choose from should be celebrated. I saw it as a potential problem area at the start of the season but it doesn’t look like being anymore.
And ditto several other areas where Meyer’s selections and use of substitutions in the Incoming Tour Series have built up depth. Make no mistake, tougher obstacles lie ahead for the Boks, and both the coach and captain were right to concentrate on the negatives after the big win as the players can’t afford to get carried away.
But for now the Boks, who laid the platform for their 73-13 triumph by refusing to let the Argentine set-piece settle in the scrappy opening half hour, are thriving on the confidence that comes with a winning habit and they go into the away leg with the momentum they never had this time last year.