Why the Sharks vs Stormers showdown is of significance to Bok coach Nienaber

Jacques Nienaber in conversation with Irishman Felix Jones in Tokyo last year. Nienaber has since become the Springbok coach and Jones will be one of his assistants. Jones will be based in Europe.
Jacques Nienaber in conversation with Irishman Felix Jones in Tokyo last year. Nienaber has since become the Springbok coach and Jones will be one of his assistants. Jones will be based in Europe.
Image: Gallo Images

Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber will get his first taste of a proverbial Bok trial in his stratified position when the Sharks and the Stormers clash in Durban on Saturday.

In what was the worst-kept secret in SA Rugby‚ Nienaber was unveiled as Rassie Erasmus’s replacement on January 24.

A week later‚ the Sharks and the Bulls opened South Africa’s Super Rugby account at King’s Park.

Nienaber was in Durban this week as part of his scheduled visits from the Bok coaching staff.

That game was a glorified warm-up fixture with both sides far from their best.

From that point‚ their seasons have taken different trajectories with the Sharks recording four more wins while the Bulls have struggled with only one success from five matches.

The Sharks/Stormers game is of significance for Nienaber from a selection perspective.

The bulk of the performing forwards and backs are from the two teams. From a front row perspective‚ Ox Nche has been asking all the right questions as Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira’s replacement.

Frans Malherbe and Wilco Louw are formidable tighthead impediments that’ll test Nche’s Test match suitability.

The same will be applicable for Thomas du Toit as the Sharks’ senior front-rower with Steven Kitshoff standing in his way.

Scarra Ntubeni is already a capped Springbok‚ but Kerron van Vuuren has played well enough to also have questions to be asked about his abilities.

In JD Schickerling‚ Salmaan Moerat and Chris van Zyl‚ the Stormers have better name-brand locks‚ but Rubin van Heerden‚ Hyron Andrews and Le Roux Roets have been faultless for the Sharks.

The same applies with loose-forwards as the Stormers have blockbuster names in Jaco Coetzee and Juarno Augustus‚ but they’re going to be without superstar Pieter-Steph du Toit‚ who’s gone under the knife.

Led by Sikhumbuzo Notshe‚ the Sharks’ loose trio has been a delightful blend of skill and grunt.

The difference between the teams has been the backs.

Led by Lukhanyo Am‚ who was so lavishly and deservedly praised in a spellbinding introduction by SuperSport’s excellent isiXhosa commentator Kaunda Ntunja ahead of last week’s win against the Jaguares‚ the Sharks’ backs have picked defensive locks better than skilled bank robbers.

When confronted by the Jaguares’ rush defence‚ Curwin Bosch’s kicking game made the visitors second guess their defensive patterns.

When they had answers to the chips in behind the defensive lines‚ Bosch varied his play with the highly improved Andre Esterhuizen bringing in a new dimension with his new-found ability to pass and how he’s timed his ball distribution.

There’s enough that’s been said about Am‚ but there’s also the Sharks back three of Makazole Mapimpi‚ S’bu Nkosi and Aphelele Fassi that can pretty much do anything.

Crucially‚ they look for work when the ball doesn’t come to them; giving off a sense the Sharks have more than 15 on the field.

The Stormers have competent backs with world-class halfbacks in Damian Willemse and Herschel Jantjies. The latter has continued to thrive‚ but the former has given the impression of struggling with the weight of expectation that comes with the Stormers’ 10 jersey.

It’s been occupied by a number of impostors‚ including Jean-Luc du Plessis‚ who’ve cheapened the jumper‚ but how John Dobson has struggled to get the best out of Willemse at 10 is developing into one of SA rugby’s great mysteries.

How the Stormers backs with their array of stars have struggled to get going remains confusing.

Maybe their cohesive opponents could get them going as they’re too good a unit to remain as stale as three-day old bread. Either way‚ the big winner from this game will be Nienaber.

With the Lions and the Bulls excelling in their non-entity statuses this season‚ crackerjack performances from possibles‚ probables and incumbents could set his selection train into motion.