Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Twenty-four years … it’s a lot of water under rugby’s bridge.
The game has changed enormously in the period since the Transvaal provincial team of 1993 and Lions franchise outfit of 2017 – gearing up for sold-out Saturday against the Crusaders -- graced respective Ellis Park finals of Super Rugby.
For one thing, the 20-17 triumph of Francois Pienaar’s charges over Auckland all those years ago came in the very earliest, rawest and most experimental era of the competition, when it was limited to a Super 10 and included such teams as then-Western Samoa, North Harbour, Queensland and Natal.
It was also two years prior to “proper” professionalism taking hold – hence there was considerably less cross-continent travel in the two-group competition – and the playing style and tempo is ever more noticeably different when games from 1993 and 2017 are compared as well.
But we thought it might be an interesting, slightly fun-geared exercise, nevertheless, to weigh up the relative strength in aura terms, across the positions, of the 1993 and 2017 teams (on the assumption that the Lions starting side for Saturday’s showpiece will be unchanged from the semis XV).
When it came to picking a combined side from the two vintages, we were unashamedly swayed just a tad by the fact that several of the ’93 personnel – they also won the Currie Cup that year, with Kitch Christie as coach -- would go on to become members of arguably the most iconic side in Springbok history, the World Cup winners of 1995.
Also, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Lions class of 2017 haven’t actually won the Super Rugby title just yet …
The back threes
Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck, Courtnall Skosan (2017) v Theo van Rensburg, Pieter Hendriks, Chris Dirks (1993)
Comment: Plenty of penetrative ability and some twinkle toes amidst both trios. At fullback, it is the steadiness of recent Springbok Coetzee against the possibly more elusive running of Van Rensburg, capped seven times for SA in the immediate post-isolation era; both have strong boots and the latter used to snap over handy dropped goals at times. Arguably the most appealing of the wings would be Hendriks, who famously waltzed around “Campo” for a classic try in the RWC ’95 opener at Newlands, and Combrinck with his all-round skills and versatility.
Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster (2017) v Bernard Fourie, Japie Mulder (1993)
Comment: The current pair are building an increasingly more convincing synergy since being linked as a result of (just fit again) Rohan Janse van Rensburg’s fairly long-term injury; Vorster has been running some particularly lovely lines of late. Strapping Mulder was the dominant figure of the ’93 midfield duo, and later to be among the morale-boosting Lomu-stoppers in the 1995 RWC showpiece …
The halfback combos
Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronje (2017) v Hennie le Roux, Johan Roux (1993)
Comment: Two very good, all-international alliances here. Jantjies and Cronje have shone all season, so it was no surprise they were first-choice Boks in the clean-swept June series against France. Jantjies has been instrumental in so much of the Lions’ competitiveness and guile over the past two seasons. But Roux, remember, was the great Joost van der Westhuizen’s understudy at World Cup ’95, and Le Roux was an adaptable, scheming footballer who shifted into centre partnership with Mulder in that RWC.
Ruan Ackermann, Kwagga Smith, Jaco Kriel (2017) v Deon Lotter, Ian Macdonald, Francois Pienaar (1993)
Comment: A slight clash of styles, really, with greater collective “grunt” (Messrs Smith and Kriel would romp to the tape in a sprint race, mind) in the 1993 bunch: Macdonald was a hard, what-you-see-is-what-you-get blindsider who graced the Bok jersey a handful times from 1992. The immortal name of Pienaar barely requires discussion, of course, whilst at No 8 both the 1993 and 2017 teams coincidentally had “acting” figures in that jersey: versatile Lotter was more suited to lock or blindside flank, and Ackermann, of course, is also a rugged “seven” temporarily filling Warren Whiteley’s shoes.
Franco Mostert, Andries Ferreira (2017) v Hannes Strydom, Kobus Wiese (1993)
Comment: What’s in common here is that both teams have serious oak trees at No 4! Wiese was a behemoth character in the role, and one of the most recognisable frames at RWC 1995, and current front jumper Ferreira is a beefy unit too, tipping the scales at 121kg. But there’s also healthy value amidst the two men who occupy the slightly more rangy No 5 slot: Strydom was Wiese’s lock partner in the World Cup final, whilst Mostert is playing some of the rugby of his life (at all levels), with ceaseless energy, physical commitment and unerring work ethic.
The front rows
Ruan Dreyer, Malcolm Marx, Jacques van Rooyen (2017) v Johan le Roux, Uli Schmidt, Balie Swart (1993)
Comment: Only burly loose-head prop Van Rooyen of the six “cauliflower men” isn’t a Springbok … but with the sort of go-forward he provided in last Saturday’s semi-final, he might yet have a shot at it? Interestingly, Swart operated at No 1 against Auckland in ’93 -- with infamous (later) ear-biter Le Roux the tighthead -- despite going on to win a World Cup winning medal on the other side of the scrum. Choosing between the hookers is tough: now 56, the ex-Blue Bull Schmidt was fabulously mobile and industrious while remaining a relative meanie. The emerging Marx, of course, is more of a powerhouse figure in the boiler room and becoming a decent ball-pilfering element too.
OUR COMBINED SIDE (with certain positional-switch liberties):
15 Theo van Rensburg, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Japie Mulder, 12 Hennie le Roux (played flyhalf in 1993 final), 11 Pieter Hendriks, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Johan Roux, 8 Jaco Kriel (yes, slight gamble in this berth, as open side is more his speciality), 7 Ian Macdonald, 6 Francois Pienaar (capt), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Kobus Wiese, 3 Balie Swart (albeit loose-head in 1993 final), 2 Uli Schmidt, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
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