Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - If you had to pick a Bulls backline player and another from the pack as likeliest sources of genuine dynamism in their 2014 Super Rugby campaign, who would they be?
A personal choice, if the question had been asked a week ago, would have been inside centre Jan Serfontein and flanker Arno Botha
, both of them outstanding prospects and seemingly set to reap the benefits of having banked maiden exposure at that level in 2013 and 2012 respectively.
Let’s not forget that 2012 IRB Junior Player of the Year Serfontein is still only 20 until April, whilst Botha is 22 so they certainly represent precious investments for the three-time Super Rugby champions, who last year waved goodbye to an ominously long list of stalwarts - such names as Morné Steyn, Zane Kirchner
, Chiliboy Ralepelle
, Dewald Potgieter
, Jano Vermaak
and Jacques Potgieter.
It’s a no-brainer, then, that Serfontein’s blossoming, vast range of skills in the backline and Botha’s loose forward oomph were going to be vital elements of coach Frans Ludeke
’s quest - a tricky one, especially when you consider the anticipated Sharks revitalisation this year - to top the SA conference for a second year on the trot and go at least as far as the semi-finals again.
Suddenly, and unbelievably cruelly, the Loftus-based outfit have been stripped of the latter’s services for an estimated six months: in even more grim words, for the Bulls, that really translates to the entire Super Rugby season as the final takes place on August 2.
If you don’t believe that lightning strikes twice then trying bouncing that off Botha, who last Saturday against the Stormers in Polokwane tore ligaments in the very left knee that had just repaired from the same fate, suffered early in his second Springbok Test appearance against Scotland at Nelspruit last year after a roaring debut against Italy in Durban.
Botha only seemed to confirm on that mid-year occasion that the amazing Bok “loose forward factory” continues to churn out gems.
Already, though, you have to wonder what sort of psychological impact such a rare, repeat blow will have on the player, considering that he has already travelled down the arduous rehab road once and now faces the surgical knife before the whole process begins anew.
Botha has got to be thinking, even at this relatively infant stage of his potentially lucrative first-class career: could I get away with the identical injury a third time? (You probably don’t have to be a medical guru to fear not, meaning that he will walk an anxious tightrope for the remainder of his rugby days even if the second occasion has a suitably happy outcome.)
More immediately, and while wishing their jinxed team-mate only the very best in recovery, the Bulls have to swiftly chew on how to re-jig their loose trio now that the strong and explosive No 7 has been stripped from their Super Rugby mix.
It is not the first time in the last couple of years, after all, that they have lost the services of an undoubtedly up-and-coming loosie: a certain CJ Stander, still just 23 himself, currently plies his trade with Munster in faraway Ireland.
There is a slightly bitter irony, right now, to the fact that Stander has just put pen to paper on a new deal that will keep him with both his club and the IRFU until 2016.
With the experience of both Potgieters, among the afore-mentioned list of departed names, also no longer available at Loftus to provide reassuring loose forward depth, proven Super Rugby-standard options don’t present themselves dime-a-dozen to Ludeke as he grapples with how to fill the Botha void at blindside flank over the next few months.
Captain Pierre Spies
at No 8 and the nuggety (if often penalty-prone) Deon Stegmann
on the open side are presumably earmarked as suitably street-wise starters in the Bulls loose trio, and as the Bulls will probably seek a robust presence in the No 7 jersey - in line with their customary, highly physical overall template - the choice seems to lie between Jacques du Plessis and Jacques “Vleis” Engelbrecht.
The last-named player, snapped up from the relegated Kings last year, is a 28-year-old, quite widely-travelled servant of the domestic game who carries the ball very forcefully, although more recently No 8 has been his most familiar posting.
If Ludeke decides to put his faith more firmly in youth, then he will have to fast-track the mountainous (119kg, 2.01m), 20-year-old blindside specialist Jacques du Plessis, who was still in the SA under-20 ranks last year and got some Currie Cup exposure during the Blue Bulls’ rocky campaign with what is probably best described as moderate success - he clearly still has much learning to do although his athletic gifts require no further explanation.
With the return of veteran No 5 lock legend Victor Matfield
to the playing field this year, another possibility may present itself: the lanky and lineout-efficient former Maties star Grant Hattingh
, 23, is arguably mobile and adept enough to cut the mustard at No 7 if he is elbowed out of the second row by the gnarly Bok’s comeback.
Make no mistake, though, Arno Botha
being sidelined is a blow of great consequence at Loftus ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing