Cape Town - There were several others worthy of “honourable mentions” along the 14-Test way, but in the end I found it a relatively straightforward task to pinpoint a three-strong podium for the premier Springbok players of 2018.
Indeed, even establishing the final pecking order for the trio didn’t prove too hard ... at least as I viewed things.
A far from unimportant common thread, too, was that all three started matches extremely consistently - as good a sign as any? - during the up-and-down season which nevertheless provided enough shafts of light for a competitive RWC 2019 by the Boks.
Here is the selection:
GOLD: Pieter-Steph du Toit
Then an especially utility-value squad member, Stormers-based Du Toit began the 2018 Test campaign in a relative no man’s land: leading an essentially “reserve” combo - and from lock - in the controversial, watered-down international against Wales in Washington DC while most of Rassie Erasmus’s intended elite troops rested up for the first home Test against England a week later.
But the unassuming man from the Swartland did get to appear on the park in the Johannesburg heart-stopper (won 42-39), replacing Jean-Luc du Preez at blindside flank in the 50th minute ... and never really looked back from there.
The No 7 jersey pretty much became his sparkling home, even if his versatility still saw him posted in the second row from time to time as needs arose through injury and other considerations there.
Du Toit, 26, uniquely featured in every single 2018 Test, starting 12 and with eight of those on the side of the scrum, where he may well have been the year’s premier blind-sider worldwide for routine visibility and sometimes quite jaw-dropping graft-rate.
He made a truckload of crunching tackles in his adopted slot ... including as many as 28, according to at least one stats barometer, in the famous Wellington triumph over New Zealand, where his post-match tears (caught on camera) said so much about his combination of elation and utter exhaustion.
Du Toit was also terrific in the champagne-calibre Loftus follow-up against the world champions, a sure sign of his huge development in the flank role.
He deliberately slimmed down by a few kilograms during 2018 to add greater pace to his game - evidenced in some inspired track-backs when the Boks were under siege – and should look an even more complete figure at seven as his re-education, if you like, continues in 2019.
SILVER: Aphiwe Dyantyi
The sleek left wing had already demonstrated pleasing, regular effervescence in the Lions’ Super Rugby campaign, where they were losing finalists for the third time in a row.
But we still couldn’t be certain what to expect in his elevation to international rugby: he earned his maiden cap (then still aged 23) at No 11 against England at his home ground of Emirates Airline Park - an 81-point rollercoaster the Boks sneaked from a seriously iffy (3-24 once) start.
Dyantyi was caught out in a defensive-alignment sense - though so were others - during England’s early blitz, and truth be told it was a hallmark that never went completely away in his case as the season continued; expect vigorous remedial work for “World Cup year”.
But the Lions man, very importantly, lacks nothing in purely courage- or commitment-related terms on defence, including a pleasing willingness to put his body on the line in contestation for aerial ball whether going forward or backwards, so gremlins are likely to disappear with some rapidity as his Test journey advances into 2019.
The positives, however, enormously outweighed the drawbacks in his maiden green-and-gold campaign ... and would have been instrumental in his ascension a few days ago to World Rugby “Breakthrough Player of the Year”.
Even in that remarkable first clash with England, Dyantyi had demonstrated his composure (and reluctance to become unnerved by early trauma) by showing his offensive potency - sometimes from the tightest of spaces.
Apart from getting on the game’s busy try sheet himself in the 64th minute, he had made a deft inside pass for one of wing ally S’bu Nkosi’s brace of dot-downs.
As elusive and wickedly angle-changing as any wide raider on display in the 2018 Test year, Dyantyi went on to register six tries in his 13 Tests: a sprightly start-out strike rate on the long road toward attempting to emulate legendary Bryan Habana (67 from 124 Tests) as a prolific-scoring Bok left wing ...
BRONZE: Handre Pollard
Somehow Pollard seems such a stalwart of Springbok rugby, and first-class rugby in general.
But consider that he is still only 24, raising the very feasible possibility that his best-vintage years may even lie ahead.
Now the holder of 39 Bok caps, 2018 turned out to be his most prolific calendar year in Test appearance terms: he earned 13, beating off the 11 amassed in the last World Cup year (2015).
That in itself said plenty about how he made the key flyhalf berth his own for the lion’s share of Erasmus’s first year as the national team’s mastermind.
Yes, there were two games where he was limited to the splinters, though one was the dead-rubber Newlands Test against England when the coach debatably decided to see Elton Jantjies’s wet-weather game ... in fairness, not that player’s favourite environment.
But in broadest terms, Pollard was a bastion of reliability at No 10, appearing to recapture much of the confidence and game-managing potential that had made him such an excitedly-used name by pundits and enthusiasts at then-IRB Junior World Championship level for (a rare) three years.
While it is true that the Boks often looked too sterile in backline play as a whole this year, I would argue that this was very seldom something you could place specifically at the door of the pivot.
He tended, personally, to generate promising go-forward with his willingness to attack the gain line as a sturdy and often fearless physical specimen, kicked with increasing authority and smartness out of hand, and his place-kicking also gained in accuracy as the year developed.
The big turnaround, I thought, came after the two Argentina games in the Rugby Championship, when the Bulls-based player had underwhelmed: from then onward, he became an increasingly rejuvenated presence in virtually all capacities.
Pollard certainly had a memorable European tour at season’s end, being largely at ease in all four matches - and especially influential in the back-to-back victories over France and Scotland.
He is, into the bargain, an inviting option for inside centre, where he looked accomplished whenever Jantjies was summoned to the flyhalf role as a second-half substitute and the pair dovetailed with eye-catching seamlessness.
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