Lood de Jager (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – It is traditionally one of the strongest Springbok areas of play … and second-row stocks look increasingly like being the Full Monty for the national team as the Rugby Championship kick-off looms merely a week away.
Saturday’s first-round Currie Cup activity at Newlands saw proven, seasoned Test athlete Lood de Jager come through more than 50 minutes for the Blue Bulls with some aplomb on comeback from long-term injury against Western Province.
One of the premier performers for South Africa whenever required for duty at the last World Cup in 2015 – where the Boks earned bronze-medal status – De Jager had been out of action since March with a shoulder injury.
But the lanky 26-year-old didn’t show too obvious signs of cobwebs with a solid shift against WP in a good-quality, mutually high-urgency “south v north” tussle, which remained relatively in the balance while he was still on the park.
When he exited, Province held only a 12-5 superiority, and it was perhaps significant that the visitors lost further punch in their often hard-pressed pack when De Jager was pulled off … presumably with altogether bigger-picture needs in mind?
The hosts, last year’s losing finalists, pulled more forcefully clear to secure the spoils 20-5.
As SuperSport pundit and former SARU stalwart Gary Boshoff noted afterwards, De Jager “probably had another 10 minutes in him … in the last 20 minutes the Bulls looked a bit rudderless”.
But the player may well have done enough on the day to convince Bok head coach Rassie Erasmus that he is ready for a fast track back into the Bok team picture at some point in the Championship, which begins for South Africa against the Wallabies in Johannesburg on Saturday.
With later RWC 2019 firmly in mind, Erasmus has indicated that he is “splitting resources” at this stage, meaning that an advance group of around 15 players will depart early for New Zealand – the foes in Wellington a week later – and not be involved in the Australia clash.
So exactly how he will employ his locks over the next fortnight, just as one aspect of his broader plans, remains to be seen.
But as things stand, arguably his premier quarter of second-rowers – De Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert and RG Snyman – all seem ready for green-and-gold deployment after varying spells of injury-forced inactivity during the early part of the southern hemisphere season for the hitherto home-based Super Rugby trio among them.
The exception, of course, is now Gloucester-homed former Lions favourite Mostert, although he has a unique ability to both steer clear of mishaps and slug his way onward in yeoman fashion even when it seems pretty clear he could do with some feet-up time – something he has had the welcome, recent luxury of since the English Premiership campaign ended in mid-May.
Apart from his often preferred four, Erasmus also has the Lions’ Marvin Orie in his current, extended squad.
But a further development on Saturday pointed to satisfying depth in the berth in the run-up to the World Cup: another successful returnee in the shape of WP’s JD Schickerling.
The Bok coach is known to hold the still relatively youthful (24), mobile and industrious forward in high regard, despite his often wretched run of luck on the injury front.
Schickerling came off the Province bench to operate at blindside flank (for immediate-needs purposes) against the Bulls for the last half an hour of the contest and was pleasingly involved in the play.
At least in the lock position, Erasmus should have relatively little angst to deal with when it comes to depth in the 2019 Test campaign …
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