Lambie, Steyn make early impressions
The four-way tussle for the Springbok flyhalf berth kicked off in style this past weekend with the Bulls' Morne Steyn and the Sharks’ Patrick Lambie staking early claims for the position.
The duel between the four main franchise Bok flyhalves is one of the highlights of this year’s Vodacom Super Rugby tournament, with the four-way race likely to help decide Bok coach Heyneke Meyer’s flyhalf choices as he heads into the international season in June.
And while only one round has been completed, Elton Jantjies’s performance at Loftus and Johan Goosen’s jittery start in Bloemfontein have earned them criticism from their own supporters as their teams lost their opening games.
There is no doubt all four flyhalves will play an integral part in a dramatic run-in to the Bok selection this year, and with Meyer only likely to pick two flyhalves, consistency under pressure will be a massive factor in not only their respective teams' fortunes but in ensuring they stay in the national selectors' sights as well.
Meyer though will probably put more stock in performances against overseas opposition than local derbies, but a solid high percentage of success in the place-kicking stakes will be a pre-requisite for any candidate.
Jantjies has come under fire after failing to spark the Stormers' backline and failing with his boot on a night the Bulls dominated their southern rivals.
Yet it would be unfortunate if the youngster was given all the blame for the performance, even though there are those fickle enough in the Cape to clamour for Peter Grant's return after playing on Sunday in the Japanese Cup final.
Grant returned to Cape Town as his Kobe Steelers went down to Fourie du Preez’s Suntory Sungoliath in the final and while he is available now, he may be given an extra week to recover.
Jantjies will know he is under pressure when he takes the field this weekend, but it is also worth remembering the competition is a marathon and not a sprint, so one performance is not necessarily cause for panic.
As Stormers coach Allister Coetzee told the Cape Times, Jantjies’s performance can be put down to nerves.
“I have no doubt about that. It is easy to say that after the game because he didn’t have a good game. He was mentally fine, and one’s just got to manage this – I mean, all the new players were nervous. We know that the nail was knocked in very, very low, and we’ve got to raise the bar as the Sharks are very strong,” Coetzee said looking ahead to this weekend’s clash with the Sharks.
Johan Goosen’s return started with three missed kicks at goal, but the youngster steadied himself to look a lot more dangerous in the second half. And it is also worth remembering that he hasn't played any rugby for a number of months due to injury.
Goosen will be a major cog in the Cheetahs' armour this week as they face the defending champions, the Chiefs, in Hamilton and it is expected he will be a much more dominant figure on attack for his side.
The Grey College Wunderkind is seen as the future of Bok rugby. However, he will know that after a breakthrough season the second season is often the toughest for any player and that he will need to show confidence and form early on.
His coach Naka Drotske has no qualms about this, and believes it is only a matter of time before he is back to his best.
"The way Johan fought back after a slow start was a big positive," Drotske said at the post-match press conference. "Last year he missed about three kicks all season and today he missed his first three kicks, which was unusual. It was good that he got his confidence back in the second half and that shows what a quality player he is."
At Loftus Versfeld Steyn served a timely reminder that he is not a spent item by kicking seven out of seven and pinning the Stormers back in their own half for much of the game.
Steyn’s performance, while not exceptional according to his own standards, was one of a calm figure looking to make a point to those who have written him off after a poor 2012 season.
“That’s the thing with senior players, they can put a bad season behind them,” Bulls coach Frans Ludeke said. “Morne is always the type of guy who has an unbelievable work ethic. It was a great start for him and it was great to have him back at his best. That was the difference for us in the first half, he kept the Stormers in their own half and helped us keep the scoreboard ticking.”
Steyn may be behind the others now in the pecking order, but if he finds his consistency again and keeps on driving the point home, the Bok selectors won’t be able to ignore him further.
The Bok incumbent Pat Lambie showed again this weekend why he still is the favourite for the number 10 jersey, with an all-round performance that was enough to make his coach John Plumtree sing his praises.
Lambie’s all-round feel for the game was one of the major reasons why the Sharks excelled in Bloemfontein and his coach believes he can only get better.
"Pat played beautifully tonight," Sharks coach John Plumtree said at the post match presser. "His kicking for posts was outstanding. The faith the Bok management showed in him last year, and the pressure they put on him to improve, has been evident in training and it showed today.
"Pat is just going to get better and better. What's important for Pat is that he has to have the right people around him, to play off him. Frans Steyn on his outside and JP Pietersen coming off his wing is what helps Pat's game. He pretty much did everything right tonight.
It may be overstating things to forget that Demetri Catrakilis also had a great game for the Kings, and Grant could push for selection if he is granted a starting spot again.
But for now these four will battle it out in the coming weeks, closely watched by not only the Bok selectors, but the entire country.
Round one went to Steyn and Lambie, but there are a number of rounds left to be decided. Jantjies will bounce back, as will Goosen as their teams face opposition who test them in different ways.
It will be fascinating to watch and in the end the depth at flyhalf can only ensure that Springbok rugby will be the winner.