Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – You might hear a protesting howl or two from the northern hemisphere.
But you also couldn’t be accused of needing your head read if you ventured Malcolm Marx (South Africa) versus Dane Coles (New Zealand) as the ultimate “heavyweight bout” for the mantle of premier hooker in world rugby.
To maintain the boxing analogy, not a punch was thrown in anger by either in the latest round of Super Rugby: All Black stalwart Coles was instead feeling his way back into the fray after a lengthy layoff through a club game for Wellington-based Poneke, while Springbok behemoth Marx was left watching from pitch-side – television cameras occasionally picked up his resigned smile – as his Lions outfit fell prey 27-17 to the Sharks in Durban.
He was on a much-needed, mandatory franchise sit-out for international freshness purposes, albeit at a time when the Lions, flirting with non-qualification for the knockout phase for the first time since 2015, really could have done with his grunt against the unapologetically, routinely physical home side.
Marx, after all, is almost worth two players in the tight-loose, such is his level of industry – including major contribution to effecting turnovers – and general go-forward abilities.
He is expected to return to his post, which will bring a major collective sigh of relief in Johannesburg and environs, for this Saturday’s home derby against the Stormers (17:15).
What makes the encounter especially spicy is that they are locked together on 30 log points after 13 matches – the Lions just inside the playoffs zone in eighth and the Stormers just on the periphery of it.
If, eventually, only one of these two makes the cut for the finals series, the outcome of this fixture may prove to be pivotal: it is truly one of those “eight-point swing” sort of affairs.
As they are the host outfit, and having been a little unluckily pipped right at the death (via Herschel Jantjies’ dramatic try beneath the posts) in the first-round meeting between them at Newlands, the Lions are under greater pressure to win this one.
Lose it, and the Stormers seem almost assured of a superior finish on the table – both conference and overall – and with a far better chance of earning playoffs rights, into the bargain.
That is why a fresh-legged Marx adding his enormous quality to the tussle is so important for the red-and-white cause; bear in mind they will be tackling one of the more formidable packs in the competition so his ballast and aggression will be key balancers in several respects.
But a couple of hours earlier, in Durban, New Zealand’s own, main pride and joy in a No 2 shirt, Coles, may well make a comeback (though perhaps only partial this weekend, as a second-half impact presence?) for the Hurricanes in an equally important battle against the Sharks.
Robert du Preez’s charges are one of several South African sides under strong pressure in their own conference due to the highly threatening form of current leaders the Jaguares, who seem earmarked for best seeding of the five teams this year, going into the “KO” phase.
So the Sharks have to be careful not to find themselves simply fighting over non-qualification scraps (that would suddenly become a lot more likely) if they crash to the ‘Canes on home turf.
Their task may just have been made even tougher against the powerful, free-running NZ outfit by the revelation earlier this week that known class act Coles, the 32-year-old, 60-cap All Black with an enviable all-round game in his specialist berth, has been added to their tour party for SA.
He has been out of Super Rugby action since mid-March with a calf injury, but he may get an enticing gallop against the Sharks, even if coach John Plumtree takes a conservative approach to his comeback and only unleashes him for 20 minutes or thereabouts – enough time for Coles, frankly, to help be a game-breaker if necessary.
A successful return at Kings Park would then put Coles handily in line for … why, none other than a direct duel with huge Bok foe Marx a week later at Emirates Airline Park, where the Wellingtonians end their mini-trek against the Lions.
Considering that the Test between the All Blacks and Springboks in a curtailed 2019 Rugby Championship would be less than two months further up the road (July 27, Wellington) that represents a wonderful chance for one to fire a strong shot across the other’s bow in this World Cup year …
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