Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Half a dozen players each from the Stormers and Lions for my SA Super Rugby team of ordinary season campaign ... some may consider than an overload, but it arguably sums up the superiority of those franchises over the rest of the domestic pack this year.
In what was another poor collective season for the South African five, only the Stormers have advanced to the finals series – in a relatively unfavourable berth – whilst the plucky Lions came unexpectedly close to making the cut.
The remaining trio of sides have simply been left to lick their wounds and contemplate better fortunes in the restructured 2016 competition.
Here is my personal choice for most appropriate SA Super Rugby team of the year at the close of conference play – remember it is not a proposed “Springbok” team of any kind, but one picked purely on consistent form in the competition itself.
Readers, feel free to provide us with your alternative choices...
15. Jesse Kriel (Bulls)
In a largely grim year for South African back play, the arrival of the 21-year-old as a fullback force to be reckoned with was a welcome tonic. For metres made (1,232m), he was second only to the trumpeted Waratahs No 15 Israel Folau.
14. Ruan Combrinck (Lions)
A constructive presence for the Jo’burgers all season, he ran some clever lines and proved both elusive on attack and industrious on defence.
13. Francois Venter (Cheetahs)
Lionel Mapoe and the versatile Harold Vorster of the Lions often did well in No 13 shirts too, but this 24-year-old former Bulls player was something of an unsung hero for his untiring service to the Cheetahs’ cause.
12. Damian de Allende (Stormers)
Filling the difficult void left by Jean de Villiers this season, De Allende was both a clever schemer and stout physical presence at inside centre. Still some rough edges, but featured encouragingly in several of the competition’s key attack-related stats.
11. Cheslin Kolbe (Stormers)
OK, this is cheating a little because he played primarily at fullback, but the diminutive – yet eternally gutsy – flier and lethal stepper is an adaptable back-three presence and frequently showed game-splitting qualities when given the opportunity.
10. Elton Jantjies (Lions)
He faded a little, I thought, in the Lions’ decisive closing encounter with the Stormers, but otherwise a rejuvenated Jantjies pulled excellent strings for months in this channel for the surprise packages from the Big Smoke. The oft-maligned Demetri Catrakilis (Stormers) was good at ... well, what he is good at, meanwhile.
9. Faf de Klerk (Lions)
A season of significant strides for this tenacious little fellow: snappy service, excellent linking and darting in offensive play ... and some Joost-like courage in bringing down rampaging big units. All noticed by Heyneke Meyer, it seems.
8. Warren Whiteley (Lions, capt)
With due respect to established superstar down south Duane Vermeulen, who else could possibly head these troops this year? The lanky Lions dynamo was a standout both for leadership and own playing energy; burnout just never arrived for him despite observers’ growing fears it might. Runaway top tackler in the competition with a monster 231 hits.
7. Schalk Burger (Stormers)
I just felt his constant, gargantuan work-rate and abundant competitive juices were sometimes taken for granted. The man who nearly died is most certainly back!
6. Jaco Kriel (Lions)
We need to doff our caps also to the Cheetahs’ open-sider Boom Prinsloo, but here was probably the most exciting, turbo-charged forward runner of all the South Africans on display this year.
5. Franco Mostert (Lions)
A bit of a salute to veteran Marco Wentzel for the way he ruled the skies and accepted the emergency Sharks captaincy mantle, but this guy was the diesel engine that never ran out of juice for the Lions. A true, no-frills warrior.
4. Eben Etzebeth (Stormers)
The Springbok has begun reproducing his best form at a good time, with RWC 2015 looming ever-larger. Invaluable component of a ruthless tight five at Newlands, and some lethal ball-in-hand surges against the Lions two Saturdays back.
3. Frans Malherbe (Stormers)
Good challenges from men like squad-mate Vincent Koch and the Lions’ Julian Redelinghuys, but the barrel-chested Malherbe may well have forced himself into the starting tighthead jersey for the Boks.
2. Bismarck du Plessis (Sharks)
Maybe we should write off the problematic first few weeks, when this tough scrapper lost his marbles discipline-wise and then the Sharks’ leadership. Back as rank-and-filer, produced vintage best levels of play in the closing weeks, culminating in a fitting Kings Park finale.
1. Steven Kitshoff (Stormers)
Seems like a Stormers “veteran” at 23, but in his last of five seasons for the franchise before he heads for Bordeaux, he was simply tremendous – both as destructive scrummager and fierce ball-carrier.
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