Back-rows back, alright!
We are spoiled for young back-row talent across the world right now. Billy Vunipola was phenomenal in the early part of the Six Nations. Australian Michael Hooper has terrorised breakdowns at Test level for a while. All Black Steven Luatua already looks a decent heir to Zinzan Brooke in terms of marauding, muscular play.
Yet, however eye-catching these whippersnappers are, it is always nice to see familiar faces. “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” – as the saying goes.
This season, illustrious South African flanker Juan Smith defied retirement and chronic Achilles problems to impress with Toulon. He’s in the process of negotiating a new deal, and looks to have kick-started a trend.
If the past few weeks are anything to go by, 2014 seems to be the year of the back-row comeback. For neutrals, it’s an absolute pleasure to have these blokes in the limelight again.
Burger back in town
When you see Schalk Burger give an interview, the immediate thing that strikes you is his polite, charming manner – essentially the opposite of the mind-set he adopts on the field, which was nothing short of bloodthirsty in his Springbok pomp. The 30 year-old is particularly engaging when talking about cricket, but saves his most honest demeanour for discussing health problems that kept him away from rugby for over 18 months.
“It was a close call,” he explains when pushed on the bacterial meningitis that put his life in the balance last year – a scare that compounded knee, calf and back issues. Remarkably though, Burger has battled to somewhere near his best.
While the Stormers went down 14-13 to the Crusaders a fortnight ago, the blonde bombshell was brilliantly abrasive. He turned out 16 tackles and 15 carries – remarkable numbers – and disrupted a pack featuring Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock. Burger faces a month out thanks to a thigh strain, but that won’t dishearten him too much. Wales are in South Africa in June. They might see a gnarled old foe.
A beast returns from the East
Fifty seconds. Over the course of New Zealand’s entire World Cup campaign in 2011, that’s the paltry length of game-time Jerome Kaino missed. And that was when he was replaced with just a single play of the semi remaining, his side leading Australia 20-6. The imposing, athletic blindside was mightily important as the host nation prevailed in spite of claustrophobic expectation.
Following the tense final in Auckland (and another ferocious showing), Kaino jetted to Samoa for his wedding before representing the Barbarians against Australia on these shores. Full of tired All Blacks, the invitational team got battered 60-11. In the second game of the ensuing Super Rugby season, Kaino got a bang on the shoulder, needing surgery and a long lay-off. He then signed for Japanese outfit Toyota Verblitz and spent a lucrative spell in the Far East.
This weekend, Kaino was back at Eden Park in the colours of Auckland Blues, coming on as a second-half replacement in a 40-30 win over the Cheetahs. With Luatua a member of the same franchise, Steve Hansen will get a great overview of two candidates for an All Black back-row berth. Two potentially terrifying tussles with Chiefs skipper Liam Messam will also go a long way towards determining whether Kaino has a Test future.
Now 30, he may have lost a little zip. Still, it’d be a brave man to write off a return to the international scene and the series against England in June is a realistic target. “I felt like a headless chicken for the first minutes,” a modest Kaino said at the final whistle on Saturday. The fact is, any chicken standing six foot five and weighing 109 kilograms with 48 caps – headless or not – can be extremely effective.
Stand up for the Ulsterman
Two throaty roars shook Ravenhill to its foundations during Ulster’s 26-13 win over the Scarlets, but neither had anything to do with the hosts’ four tries. The first came when Stephen Ferris replaced Nick Williams after an hour, ending a 15-month absence due to an ankle injury and time-consuming complications.
The second came seconds later, Ferris charging after Ruan Pienaar’s perfect box-kick and nailing Jordan Williams – picking up the diminutive Welshman and charging 15 metres. It encouraged memories of when Ferris man-handled Will Genia in 2011. More promising still was a start and 42 minutes in an unglamorous 9-3 defeat of Edinburgh on Friday.
He has been added to Ulster’s Heineken Cup squad and, even if a full pre-season might be preferable to a spot on this summer’s Argentina tour, Joe Schmidt needs to figure out how to fit Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Jamie Heaslip, Chris Henry and Ferris into Ireland’s side. It’s a happy headache for sure.
…but a cruel set-back too
These three stories are great, but spare a thought for David Pocock as well. The exceptional Aussie openside is at the bottom of another long road to rehabilitation thanks to a second operation on his left knee after it buckled at a breakdown during the Brumbies recent victory over Western Force.
Five matches in 15 months is a bleak record, but Pocock has set his sights on the 2015 World Cup on these shores. With a fair wind, he will achieve that dream. Determination and class are on his side.
By Charlie Morgan