The Standard Bank Proteas need to continue improving if the sense of pride and joy that surrounds the team today is to remain in the long-term, coach Russell Domingo said upon the squad’s victorious return from their Test series triumph in Australia.
I think it’s fair to say most South African cricket fans almost burst with pride when Proteas captain Faf du Plessis produced the most magnificent riposte to all his detractors with his century on the first day of the third Test against Australia in Adelaide.
Under huge pressure for a week – hounded by the International Cricket Council’s desire for a scapegoat and persecuted by the Australian media, who even went so far as to launch a physical assault through the pushing-and-shoving goon with a microphone, Will Crouch – Du Plessis played an innings of immense mental strength, skill and determination as he rescued the South African innings from total collapse in tough conditions.
The Adelaide airport incident was undoubtedly a set-up because there were go-pro cameras stationed ahead of time on the walkway and all media were well aware that Du Plessis was not allowed to comment anyway as per ICC rules.
The South African camp believes the original ball-tampering video was placed in the media’s hands by Cricket Australia and, desperate for something to deflect from the massive problems in their cricket, the media pushed it to the limit.
At which point the ICC stepped into the fray and the song-and-dance about the Proteas captain doing two entirely legal things at the same time – eating a sweet and using his saliva to shine the ball – and something the Australian team themselves have sportingly admitted they do as well, turned into a full-scale operetta.
The ICC’s behaviour in this matter has been truly pathetic and to hear CEO David Richardson whingeing on Friday about how disappointed he is that Du Plessis is appealing, as is his right, his guilty verdict astonished me.
Richardson is a trained lawyer and yet he thinks Du Plessis has been fairly treated when the ICC laid the charge and appointed one of their own employees, match referee Andy Pycroft, as the judge, with other employees, the umpires, as the star witnesses. To make matters worse, because the ICC wanted to rush the whole process to completion before the start of the Adelaide Test, Du Plessis was denied the right to have the legal representation he wanted, being unable to fly them in from South Africa in time.
I know this all happened in Australia, but to make it an absolute kangaroo court was taking things too far.
If Du Plessis is guilty of an offence, what about all those cricketers who put sunscreen on and then wipe their sweat on the ball? The infused mixture is a wonderful ball-shiner.
What about the ubiquitous practice of chewing gum and then using your saliva to polish the ball?
If Richardson really wants to uphold the integrity of the game then perhaps he should be applying his mind to the blatant shortcomings in the laws of cricket.
Du Plessis’ tremendous performance in adversity has had even more people wondering if he should not continue as captain even once AB de Villiers returns.
Personally, I rate Du Plessis as the more natural captain and probably someone who wants the job more. But you cannot just ditch De Villiers as he has done little wrong as captain and also has a wonderful cricket brain. Convenor of selectors Linda Zondi has said all the right things in this regard.
I believe you have to leave that sort of decision to De Villiers himself and, with his workload issues, he may well decide to hand over the reins to Du Plessis.
The only other issue is that Du Plessis might have been the batsman earmarked to make way for De Villiers, but you surely cannot leave him out after his Adelaide masterpiece?
So it didn’t quite end in jubilation, but the Lions’ SuperRugby campaign still brought enormous pride and good feeling over their rags-to-riches story, and the public will carry many of those emotions into the Rugby Championship that starts next weekend.
But it is vital to realise that the Springboks and the Test arena are entirely different environments to the Lions and SuperRugby, and comments calling for the whole of Johan Ackermann’s team to be promoted to the national side or for coach Allister Coetzee to simply copy the game plan are ill-informed, ill-judged and have the potential to be divisive.
The health of any rugby team has a lot to do with its unity of purpose and their togetherness as people, and one could sense some frustration this week when the Springbok management and some of the players were constantly asked questions that referred back to the Lions.
Hopefully Lions captain Warren Whiteley, whose hard work on the field and wise words off it are nothing short of inspirational, put that all to bed this week when he highlighted in no uncertain terms that the Springboks are different.
“There’s no debate about using the same playing style, these are two different sides and we are not talking about unions any more. You’re talking about a team at provincial level against a national side. Sure, we as Lions players can bring confidence to the Springboks and there are similarities in the way we are trying to play. But there’s a step up when you come to the Springboks and the intensity and speed with which we’ve been training is at another level to the Lions,” Whiteley said this week.
Last weekend’s column bemoaned the parlous state of the Currie Cup, South Africa’s flagship rugby competition, but the performance of the Lions is one of the reasons for optimism when it comes to South African rugby.
Amidst the ritz and glitz of the Olympics there was another reason for cheer, even if the Blitzbokke flattered to deceive and had to settle for a bronze medal (still a notable achievement and more than New Zealand or Australia could manage). I’m talking about Rasta Rashivenge being given the honour of refereeing the Sevens final, an appointment that continues a long line of excellence when it comes to South African officials.
They receive way more criticism than plaudits simply because of human nature, but our referees and the high standards they maintain is one of the best stories in South African rugby.
Some of the media were privileged this week to be able to sit down with leading referee Jaco Peyper for an information session just to help us scribes better understand why certain decisions are made on the field and how the officials are interpreting the details of the laws these days.
Peyper said a referee makes about 400 decisions in every game and there will always be little mistakes, but the important thing is to ensure these do not have a major impact on the game.
He also said it is important to note that the key focus areas that referees are blowing these days have been decided in consultation with the coaches and other stakeholders, notably medical staff. They have had their say on what the shape of the game should look like and how to make it safer, and the referee’s job is to facilitate that.
Interestingly, there are some well-known phrases in our rugby lexicon, like “downward pressure”, “the direction of the hands when passing” and “bringing the catcher of the ball down safely” that don’t appear anywhere in the laws of the game.
This has led to some confusion amongst the public when watching games and the referees and TMOs don’t take any of those polluting myths into account, most often leading to filthy language in the lounge. For a clear and thorough view of the laws, including the opportunity to discuss issues with leading referees, I would recommend going to http://www.sareferees.com/
The Bulls will finish on top of the Vodacom SuperRugby log if they can beat the Stormers in the final round at Newlands on Saturday, but the home side will be relying on emotion and pride as star wing Bryan Habana pulls on the blue and white jersey for the last time.
Finishing on top of the log would bring with it enormous reward for the Bulls because it means they advance directly to the semi-finals, without having to expend any extra energy on a playoff match and they would play their remaining matches in this year’s competition on the hallowed turf of Loftus Versfeld.
And we can banish any thoughts of rugby in South Africa being played along the lines of what’s best for the country and other democratic notions; the Stormers are not going to hold back on their fiercest rivals just because they are the country’s best hope of winning the competition.
For one, the Stormers will be out to ensure a winning send-off for France-bound Habana, the greatest Springbok winger since The Prince of Wings, Carel du Plessis, and, secondly, they will also want to satisfy their demanding supporters, who have sold out Newlands to come and see another epic north/south derby.
Captain Jean de Villiers, who returns to the team at inside centre, has been speaking of playing for pride in the build-up to the game.
“The focus is on our pride and playing for the jersey,” said De Villiers. “We are professional rugby players and we have a job to do, and that is to go out and do our best to win. We have disappointed ourselves this season and we’ve also disappointed our coaches and supporters and we are busy trying to make up for that by finishing the season well. We’ve won four in a row and we would like to make it five against the Bulls.
“Clashes between the Stormers and the Bulls are always huge and the ticket sales for this game have summed that up. The focus is on our pride as a team and playing for the jersey, which means we will do our best to win the game.”
Stormers supporters did not see too much pride from their team when they last played the Bulls – they meekly succumbed to a 25-17 defeat at Loftus in the opening round of South African action.
Bulls flyhalf Morne Steyn killed the Stormers’ chances that day with his kicking, both tactically and at goal, and coach Allister Coetzee has responded by dropping his flyhalf Elton Jantjies and replacing him with the inexperienced Gary van Aswegen. To be fair, though, regular fullback Joe Pietersen, the Stormers’ best kicker, is out injured and choosing Van Aswegen gives them a right and left-footed kicker with Gio Aplon moving into the number 15 jersey.
Rynhardt Elstadt has returned to the starting loose trio and will help beef up a Stormers pack that will have to face up to the physicality of the Bulls far better than they did in their previous meeting.
The Bulls also have important changes, with Springboks Jan Serfontein and Francois Hougaard both out injured and replaced by Francois Venter and Jano Vermaak respectively.
The 22-year-old Venter is another bright midfield prospect and he started all but one game for the Bulls at inside centre in last year’s Currie Cup and also made eight SuperRugby appearances.
Vermaak is arguably the form scrumhalf in South Africa this year and made his return from the bench last weekend after a hamstring injury that cut short his Springbok campaign. He and Steyn form a formidable half-back combination and that is one area where the Bulls seem to have a clear advantage over the youthful Stormers partnership of Van Aswegen and Louis Schreuder.
There will possibly be even more emotion at King’s Park on Saturday as the end of a Sharks era is reached, while the Southern Kings will be desperately hoping they are not playing their last SuperRugby match.
There have been few more dedicated servants of KwaZulu-Natal rugby over the past 30 years than Hugh Reece-Edwards, but he and his co-coach Grant Bashford, both standing in after the unceremonious firing of their boss, John Plumtree, will be in charge for the last time before John Smit’s regime change takes effect in Durban.
The Sharks players, understandably ill-at-ease over the way Plumtree was dispensed with even though he had been promised a two-year contract extension, probably have more to gain from the game than their Kings opponents, who are a second-string outfit anyway.
At this stage, nothing is more important for the Kings than the promotion/relegation games against the Lions in a fortnight’s time, so they have rested all their regular starters who have injury niggles.
That means no more than three players who started last weekend against the Stormers – lock David Bulbring, terrific eighthman Jacques Engelbrecht and wing Marcello Sampson – are in the run-on XV for King’s Park.
No team has had more selection challenges than the Sharks in this year’s competition and this week the complications were Butch James’s four-week suspension for his wild tackle against the Bulls and a concurrent injury to Pat Lambie.
That means Riaan Viljoen, who showed in last year’s Currie Cup that he is more than comfortable in the number 10 jersey, shifts from fullback to flyhalf.
And while Habana is saying goodbye in Cape Town, fellow Springbok wing JP Pietersen returns to action this weekend in Durban.
The stadium may have been called King’s Park since 1891, but it has also been dubbed The Shark Tank. The second-string Kings are more likely to feel that they’ve been dropped inside the latter than feeling at home on Saturday.
The Sharks (v Southern Kings, Saturday 17:05): Odwa Ndungane, JP Pietersen, Louis Ludik, Meyer Bosman, Lwazi Mvovo, Riaan Viljoen, Charl McLeod, Keegan Daniel, Jean Deysel, Marcell Coetzee, Franco van der Merwe, Edwin Hewitt, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Kyle Cooper, Wiehahn Herbst, Jandré Marais, Willem Alberts, Jacques Botes, Cobus Reinach, Fred Zeilinga.
Southern Kings (v The Sharks, Saturday 17:05): Siviwe Soyizwapi, Hadleigh Parkes, Waylon Murray, Shane Gates, Marcello Sampson, George Whitehead, Nicolas Vergallo, Jacques Engelbrecht, Mpho Mbiyozo, Devin Oosthuizen, David Bulbring, Steven Sykes, Kevin Buys, Hannes Franklin, Charl du Plessis. Replacements – Grant Kemp, Bandise Maku, Darron Nell, Thabo Mamojele, Aidon Davis, Shaun Venter, Michael Killian.
Stormers (v Bulls, Saturday 19:15): Gio Aplon, Gerhard van den Heever, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Gary van Aswegen, Louis Schreuder, Nizaam Carr, Rynhardt Elstadt, Deon Fourie, De Kock Steenkamp, Eben Etzebeth, Brok Harris, Scarra Ntubeni, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements – Martin Bezuidenhout, Pat Cilliers, Gerbrandt Grobler, Don Armand, Nic Groom, Elton Jantjies, Damian de Allende.
Bulls (v Stormers, Saturday 19:15): Zane Kirchner, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Francois Venter, Bjorn Basson, Morné Steyn, Jano Vermaak, Dewald Potgieter, Jacques Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Grant Hattingh, Flip van der Merwe, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dean Greyling. Replacements – Callie Visagie, Frik Kirsten, Jacques du Plessis, Jono Ross, Rudy Paige, Jürgen Visser, Morné Mellett.
Other fixtures: Crusaders v Hurricanes (Friday 9:35); Melbourne Rebels v Highlanders (Friday 11:40); Blues v Chiefs (Saturday 9:35); Waratahs v Reds (Saturday 11:40); Force v Brumbies (Saturday 13:45). Bye – Cheetahs (who will climb from 6th to 5th if the Reds lose to the Waratahs).