Masters of Wits a study in di­ver­gence

Ack­er­mann’s Mr De­pend­able is the man you want play­ing at the rear of the Lion’s pow­er­ful pack

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT - JAC­QUES VAN DER WESTHUYZEN NJABULO NGIDI

YOU would have heard the ex­pres­sion: “Like a good red wine, he gets bet­ter with age”. Well, that’s Ross Cronje for you.

The Lions No 9 is cer­tainly get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter as the years go by. Right now he’s on top of his game – a good thing, too, see­ing he’s the first choice Spring­bok scrumhalf and such a key man for the Lions.

And what a role he has to play this week­end when the Cru­saders visit El­lis Park for the Su­per Rugby fi­nal.

At 28, there’s not much Cronje still has to learn about the game, or him­self, for that mat­ter, and that’s why he is so fully trusted by his coaches. He knows what they want from him, and he gives it to them. No frills, no fuss.

It has been a long, and at times try­ing, jour­ney to this point, but it is all work­ing out well for Cronje.

Hav­ing joined the Lions from the Sharks in 2012, he ini­tially had to play be­hind Michael Bon­de­sio and a few oth­ers at the Lions, but even­tu­ally forced his way into the start­ing team, only for Faf de Klerk to emerge on the scene and lit­er­ally steal his thun­der.

It be­came a bat­tle be­tween Cronje and De Klerk for the No 9 jer­sey and it’s no se­cret De Klerk won that fight in 2015.

The for­mer Pu­mas man stole the show with his en­ergy, his snip­ing runs and try-scor­ing feats and be­came the Bok first choice last sea­son.

An in­dif­fer­ent show­ing for Al­lis­ter Coetzee’s team and news that he would be head­ing to Europe at the end of Su­per Rugby, opened the door for Cronje to fi­nally get the recog­ni­tion he has so de­served.

He took ev­ery op­por­tu­nity given to him and just about forced coach Jo­han Ack­er­mann to throw his ro­ta­tion pol­icy out the win­dow and pick him.

Cronje’s form in the Su­per Rugby com­pe­ti­tion this year has been out­stand­ing from the start and it came as no sur­prise when, in June, Coetzee dropped De Klerk from the Bok squad in favour of Cronje.

The rea­sons were sim­ple: Cronje was sim­ply a stead­ier op­er­a­tor, he was de­pend­able and you knew what you were go­ing to get from him.

Some crit­ics have called him bor­ing – be­cause he’s not as flashy as De Klerk, or as in­flu­en­tial as Fourie du Preez – but he does ev­ery­thing asked of him, and more. Cronje has won praise for his all­round game and con­sis­tency in form. He does his key func­tions well, which is pass strongly and ac­cu­rately and kick well out of hand. He also reads the game, which al­lows him to make telling breaks, around the fringes, but also in open play.

What makes him such a stand­out player is the fact he so sel­dom re­ally stands out. He sim­ply gets on with his job and keeps mis­takes to a min­i­mum.

Cronje has been su­perb for the Lions for some time now and it’s no sur­prise he’s been handed a lead­er­ship role, hav­ing reg­u­larly cap­tained the team. He’s a calm fig­ure, with a level head on his shoul­ders, doesn’t get flus­tered or lose his cool. And that’s what makes a great No 9.

Over the last few sea­sons Cronje has stood up to some of the best scrumhalves in the game and never looked out of place. Ask any South African who’d be their pre­ferred can­di­date to play be­hind the Lions pack against the Cru­saders in Satur­day’s fi­nal and you’d get plenty of them say­ing Cronje. He’s just the per­fect fit. THE sup­posed heir to the Steven Pien­aar throne – the king play­maker in South African foot­ball – blames him­self for not fol­low­ing in the royal steps laid for him.

Bid­vest Wits’ Day­lon Claasen, was viewed as the man to take over from Pien­aar,

in mak­ing Bafana Bafana tick.

But in­stead of tak­ing over from Pien­aar, the 27-year-old dropped off the radar after play­ing in the 2009 Un­der-20 World Cup. He only made brief cameos in the Bafana setup there­after and wan­dered in The Nether­lands, Bel­gium, Poland and Ger­many be­fore com­ing home.

“The rea­son I didn’t reach that level is lack of con­sis­tency,” Claasen said. “My game was on-and­off. That’s one thing I am look­ing to im­prove this sea­son. I don’t blame any­one for what hap­pened. You must look at your­self be­fore you look at other peo­ple be­cause the key to chang­ing what­ever is wrong lies with you, not other peo­ple. Being crit­i­cal of your­self isn’t al­ways bad. It’s good be­cause you can be hon­est and say that I did badly here and this is how I will im­prove. You learn from that.” Claasen now calls Pien­aar his team­mate. “I am happy that I am able to play with him be­fore he hangs up his boots, be­cause ‘Schillo’ isn’t a young­ster,” Claasen said with a chuckle.

The pair are the Clever Boys’ mar­quee sign­ings. Kobamelo Kodisang, Bokang Thlone and cen­tre­back Slavko Dam­janovic from Mon­tene­gro are the other sign­ings the Absa Premier­ship cham­pi­ons made.

“I’ve seen Day­lon grow up from the days at Ajax (Am­s­ter­dam),” Pien­aar said. “He has ma­tured into a qual­ity player. I have al­ways been his fan. I am re­ally happy to be in the same team with him. He has al­ways looked up to me and I give him ad­vice. I am happy the way he has pro­gressed in his ca­reer. Jour­nal­ists al­ways write that this is the next so-and-so but I think that he has his own tal­ent and his own abil­i­ties to be­come some­one spe­cial in South Africa.”

There will be no time for Claasen to be in­con­sis­tent at Wits. The Mil­park-based side have a solid squad of mid­field­ers and then there is the hardto-please Gavin Hunt, the coach.

“The dif­fer­ence be­tween the boy I left South Africa as and the man I am re­turn­ing as, isn’t that much,” Claasen said. “But I am more aware of what’s hap­pen­ing around me, in terms of the foot­ball and the life­style of how to be­have on and off the field. My am­bi­tion and my work rate are still there. As a child I wanted to go to Europe. I was blessed enough to get the op­por­tu­nity to do that. Com­ing back, I don’t think that it’s a step back. I feel that it’s growth be­cause the league has evolved here.”

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