Jacques Nienaber. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/JUAN JOSE GASPARINI
Jacques Nienaber. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/JUAN JOSE GASPARINI

Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber will get his first taste of a Bok “trial” in his stratified position when the Sharks and 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 Bulls opened SA’s Super Rugby account at Kings Park in Durban.

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

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

From that point on 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 will 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 are without superstar Pieter-Steph du Toit‚ who has had surgery.

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 André Esterhuizen bringing in a new dimension with his new-found ability to pass and how he has timed his ball distribution.

Enough has been said about Am‚ but there is 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 does not come to them, giving off a sense that 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’ No 10 jersey.

It has been occupied by a number of impostors‚ including Jean-Luc du Plessis‚ who have 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 are 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 Bulls excelling in their nonentity statuses this season‚ crackerjack performances from possibles‚ probables and incumbents could set his selection train into motion.