THERE is no such thing as a pre-season friendly in South African rugby. What was a supposed first hit out for the Stormers could easily have been a Super Rugby match played at the most critical juncture of the season. It was full on.
It was unrelenting and both teams were playing to win. Both teams kicked for goal at vital times and neither bought into the 10-try feasts usually associated with warm-up matches. Tries were at a minimum and both sides tackled.
The quality of the match was remarkable, given it was the first week of February. The Cheetahs won with an injury-time penalty, but the biggest winner was surely the sight of Juan Smith back on a rugby field and as imposing as ever.
Smith is one of the great loose-forwards of the last decade. He is also one of the least spoken and written about, but every South African supporter would have kept an eye on his comeback in Bloemfontein.
Schalk Burger’s return is a week or two away and if Smith and Burger can make it to July with knees, hands, feet and head intact, the Bok pack will again be the envy of the rugby world.
Smith was darn good, given he has been out for 18 months with an Achilles injury that threatened closure on his career. What a wonderful view to see him rampant and playing as fearlessly as is his norm.
South Africa have a legend, but watch centre Jan Serfontein of the Bulls. He will play for the Boks before the year is over.
He was the World Under 20 player in the Baby Boks’ tournament-winning effort in Cape Town last year and he has been nurtured into senior rugby without haste and with plenty of conviction.
Some players simply make the transition from juniors to seniors and Serfontein is one of those. He is also a beast, physically the most imposing centre in South Africa and one of the biggest in the game. He’s just 20 years old but it’s his skill and natural feel for the game that is even more impressive than his physical presence.
Not since Danie Gerber weaved destruction has a player looked as capable of doing as he pleases from broken play.
If Bok coach Heyneke Meyer battled with some positions in 2012, it won’t be the case this season.
There is so much new talent in the South African game and there is also massive changes to what paraded as Super Rugby in New Zealand and Australia.
It is heartening to see how the Lions have embraced their year out of Super Rugby.
Johann Ackermann is bringing through another generation of players and the Lions have been committed in everything they have done on the field this year.
The regrouping could be the best thing that has ever happened. The core of the Super Rugby team is on loan to other South African franchises and there’s a very promising group that has played in the season’s first month of matches.
Rugby in South Africa is strong and globally it is healthy.
The Sevens in New Zealand was the best tournament I’ve watched and Kenya were 10 seconds away from a miracle win. The Africans had beaten the Boks, beaten hosts New Zealand and were leading England 19-12 with 10 seconds to go. They turned over the ball, England scored and in the sudden death scored again to win the tournament.
But what a display from the Kenyans, who have benefited from the structure and intelligence of English coach Mike Friday.
Kenya now play the game like they understand it and not just on natural feel. They understand defence, thrive on it, and were the most physical of the teams at the tournament. A coach does make a difference.
The Boks have opted for more agility and players blessed with a step but not with size. There is no substitute for physicality in rugby. When the Bok Sevens have had more bulk than balanced runners they have been effective.
Paul Treu is currently trading on goodwill as coach, as the Sevens has been in free fall for some time now. It can’t be a fait accompli that he is the best there is. Results don’t make a convincing argument.
Finally, the Six Nations delivered on its promise, with Wales diabolical against Ireland and England ruthless against Scotland.
The global game needs seven to 10 teams to be a factor between World Cups, and England and France most definitely are the equal of South Africa and Australia, with New Zealand still out in front, but not by a lot.
The rugby season will run until December, but the break over the last two months has been too long.
Just like Juan Smith’s performance on Saturday, it is full-on from here on, and you can be confident that South Africa’s Super Rugby challenge can deliver a winner this year.