Stormers v Bulls derby is a trial for Springbok contenders
Bulls props Trevor Nyakane needs just one more powerful scrumming performance against Steven Kitshoff and he will edge Wilco Louw as the Springbok starting tighthead option in the June international series against England.
Bulls loosehead prop Lizo Gqoboka could also force his way into the extended national squad with a strong set piece display against Louw at Newlands on Saturday.
Nyakane’s all-round game this season has been the best of all the tightheads in the country but the primary job of a tighthead is to be the rock around which a scrum is built.
Bulls coach John Mitchell has instilled a greater work ethic into Nyakane. The player’s conditioning is of Test selection standard. He is also playing the best rugby of his career.
The Stormers are unbeaten at home in Super Rugby this season and the Bulls have got everyone’s attention through beating the Hurricanes in the season opener and hammering the Sharks in Durban. They also beat the Stormers in Pretoria.
The significance of this match though is in the national squad answers it gives. The outcome will have no bearing on who wins this season’s Super Rugby title.
The Stormers are a team in decline and the Bulls are on the rise, but both currently are (at best) mid-table pretenders to the playoffs.
The playoff structure is a farce in that a team can lose more matches than it wins and still finish in eighth.
Forget the talk of mathematical playoffs for these two pretenders to the title. All a playoff will do is extend the season by one weekend. Not one of these two teams will be among the final four post the June internationals.
Newlands on Saturday for me is about who will be wearing green and gold against England in the three-Test series. I haven’t waited for the first scrum of a return match quite as much as this one.
A month ago, the Bulls scrum destroyed the Stormers in the first minute and the Stormers never recovered. No team has muzzled the Stormers pack quite as easily as the Bulls did in Pretoria.
Perhaps the Stormers, individually and by extension as a collective, underestimated the Bulls scrumming ability. The Stormers are strong in the forwards, but in Pretoria they were strangled, suffocated and squeezed. Take your pick of descriptive.
At Newlands there will be no element of surprise from the Bulls. They’re well coached and powerful in the forwards. Their backs are decidedly more effective than the Stormers but with the exception of the Highlanders very few back divisions function if the pack isn’t on the front foot.
(Steven) Kitshoff, at loosehead, versus (Trevor) Nyakane, at tighthead, could determine whether the latter starts for the Springboks against England. It will also influence the result.
Kitshoff is a Springbok match-day squad certainty, be it starting or from the bench, but the tighthead position is one of the many that is demanding ownership. There is no obvious starter.
If Nyakane emerges stronger for his tussle with Kitshoff he’d have earned the right to start in the June internationals ahead of Wilco Louw.
Equally, RG Snyman in his battle with Pieter-Stef du Toit. Snyman is the puppy among big dogs Du Toit and Lood de Jager. The latter two won the South African player of the Year award in 2016 and 2015 respectively, but it’s Snyman who this season has made the greatest impact.
Du Toit’s been good at flank and even better at lock but this is his match to show Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus that class is permanent.
So many senior players in the Stormers team have to front on Saturday in terms of a national pecking order, with Stormers captain Siya Kolisi top of this list.
Kolisi needs to play his biggest game of the season. He’s been nowhere near the Test player of 2017 and has to lead through performance. Kolisi has to make Erasmus’s job easy in selection, and he can only do so through performance.
Flyhalves Handre Pollard and Damian Willemse will command everyone’s attention but neither can prosper in isolation. Willemse battled in Pretoria against the Bulls because the Stormers pack came second. Pollard’s last visit to Newlands was also a shocker. Each has a demon to conquer.
Damian de Allende will also confirm his selection as an alternative to Frans Steyn at No 12 with another repeat of his powerful display against the Rebels, but ultimately this is a match in which the forwards will determine the headlines, even if they may not necessarily get the headlines.
Springbok coach (Rassie) Erasmus, in his various national camps, has shown a lot of interest in the forwards from both teams. As many as five from the respective two packs could be in the starting Springbok pack, which is why this match is so significant.
And the question to be answered on Saturday is whether the five forwards can produce a performance that makes their Springbok selection more obvious than contentious?
This match is more Springbok selection D-Day than Derby day for those who have Test aspirations in June.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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