Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Springbok No 8 Pierre Spies, in the almost certain assumption he plays, will earn his 50th international cap in Saturdayâ€™s third Test against England in Port Elizabeth.
He will arrive at that landmark in a fitting and, to be brutally honest, fairly unusual mode: something that can quite genuinely be called â€œformâ€? for his country.
It is not something you can always associate the Bulls captain with, when it comes to his track record at a higher level.
Spies has been an enigmatic factor for the Boks, from pretty much as far back as when he made his debut some six years ago, in that grotesque 49-0 thumping in Australia.
A lack of consistency both in matches themselves and series or competitions has punctuated the Pretoria-born loose forwardâ€™s Test career, even as his known bodily strength and athletic gifts have shone majestically in bursts.
That tendency toward only fitful excellence, in a position that requires constant high industry, alertness and defensive mettle, has been overwhelmingly the main reason why many critics – unashamedly including this one – have felt reason to query his regular presence for the Boks.
For all his attributes, Spies has never been in the same league for 80-minute â€œpresenceâ€? as distinguished other No 8s on the world stage like Kieran Read and Jamie Heaslip who slugged it out in the early part of the series between New Zealand and Ireland, simultaneous to Spiesâ€™s commitments against England.
Well, until now?
The 27-year-old, articulate and seemingly pleasant off the field, has arguably been as effective and prominent as any other Bok forward in the march to a 2-0 series lead ahead of his milestone game in the Friendly City.
You just the sense that he may be finally â€œgetting itâ€?, considering his full-blooded energy and dynamism over the full course of the Durban and Johannesburg Tests – and against opponents who have been thoroughly credible and seemingly headed back toward brighter times.
As former England forward Paul Ackford noted of Spiesâ€™s effort in the Sunday Telegraph after the second encounter at Coca-Cola Park: â€œA forceful, physical game.â€?
I certainly felt Spies had been one of the most durable Bok players in a match marked by its strangely two-tone nature in performance level by the team collectively.
His engine kept going … right down to his skilful involvement in the decisive JP Pietersen try in the 73rd minute, where some nimble footwork was allied to his more customary ball-in-hand brute force as he played a key role in the lead-up to the game-killing touchdown.
Perhaps people donâ€™t necessarily appreciate, too, how important a role Spies is now performing as the most senior lineout forward in the Bok starting XV.
On Saturday he was responsible for at least two poaches off the English throw at the tail, whilst also banking his own ball with near-traditional comfort.
â€œItâ€™s one aspect of my game I work hard on also, knowing I can have an effect on the game there,â€? he told Sport24 after Saturdayâ€™s Test.
â€œThere are a lot of new guys involved and we help each other as much as possible lineout-wise, an area that I enjoy. Iâ€™m filling the role very happily.â€?
Spies, already the countryâ€™s most-capped No 8, exudes enthusiasm and a refreshing sense of hunger in these early days of the Heyneke Meyer Bok regime.
â€œWe do want to win three games out of three (against England), and as a group to grow and improve from this performance … itâ€™s about doing that finishing job now.
â€œIâ€™m enjoying being part of this set-up. We all know about the quality of loose forwards in this country, and the older you get the better you need to become … the talent comes through quite early!
â€œSo I guess Iâ€™m at that stage of my career, but I want to evolve my game to try to keep ahead of the pack.â€?
Right now, that evolution process seems to be keeping the Pierre Spies legion of detractors reasonably firmly at bay …
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