Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - We’re midway through the SA conference roster in Super Rugby 2018 and, as highlighted on Sport24 on Tuesday, the collective challenge from these shores has been less than luminary.
But that doesn’t mean certain individuals haven’t stuck up their hands for consistency of own performances in the first few weeks of the competition.
Having watched every match involving SA teams thus far, here is a selection of 10 players I believe have done a bit more than simply earn an honest crust.
Naturally it is a subjective exercise and - rightly or wrongly - I am not always seduced by the pile of American-style statistical data tossed in our faces these days.
Nor should sensational once-off performances necessarily be considered: Bulls fullback Warrick Gelant is rightly being lauded for his blistering hat-trick of tries against the Sharks last Saturday, for example, but he has also had an injury-curtailed start to the season.
Here is my pick, in no special order:
Lood de Jager (Bulls)
The machine they can’t switch off. Lanky Lood is playing his best all-round rugby since some of his livelier Test performances during the Heyneke Meyer tenure as Bok coach. The 2.06m, 123kg specimen not only rules the lineout roost - including some vital pinches of opposition ball - for the Bulls, but he makes tackle after tackle and is quickly back up off the deck, too. Nor have his driving and mauling play and kick-off receipt duties been too shabby, either. Seems a sure fit for the Springbok No 5 jersey in the keynote June series against England.
Aphiwe Dyantyi (Lions)
A breath of fresh air on the SA scene, at least to this point. Not even the intended first choice at No 11 for the Lions at the start of the season, he has cashed in splendidly (until his pectoral muscle injury) on Courtnall Skosan’s long-term own setback. Spring-heeled Dyantyi quickly romped to five tries, demonstrating some magical stepping off the mark and blinding pace, and seems very likely to feature in Rassie Erasmus’s extended Bok squad during the June Test period.
Andre Esterhuizen (Sharks)
It’s been a desperately disappointing first half of the programme for the Sharks (two wins to show from eight games) but the muscular midfielder has bucked the general trend of gloom in the Kings Park fold. Especially prominent in their ray-of-light New Zealand tour leg, Esterhuizen has been at his hallmark, rugged physical best … but also shown some clever touches to confirm he’s more than just “direct” and confrontational. Just as importantly, he is doing a decent job so far of keeping that notorious old red mist at bay.
Damian de Allende (Stormers)
OK, there’s certainly a case for saying the big Stormers midfielder isn’t yet back up to the levels he achieved for attacking threat and wickedly creative off-loads some three years back; his franchise’s often scratchy, clarity-lacking showings thus far haven’t helped. But he’s also been way better - more assertive and confident-looking personally - than evidenced last year and a bit before. He is supposedly lying second, with 97, only in the competition for carries to the Rebels’ brawny Tongan loosie Amanaki Mafi.
Elton Jantjies (Lions)
Still the consummate, natural “footballer” for his beloved franchise. When the Lions are on the front foot and he is at the fulcrum of their varied attacking moves, Jantjies looks a million dollars with his deftly-weighted tactical kicking, crisp passing and ability to scythe through the smallest of gaps or half-holes. Of course the usual, anxious question will arise come June: is his Lions majesty properly transferable to the green and gold?
Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks)
A yeoman, one-franchise servant of the Sharks’ cause since 2007, “Beast” has come out throwing leather, as it were, in 2018. Clearly mindful that he requires two further Test caps to reach 100, and will want to get there as a starter, Mtawarira has been an important stabiliser of the Sharks’ scrum on his loosehead side, considering Thomas du Toit’s acclimatisation issues at No 3. But he has also busied himself routinely well outside the set-piece, in a clear statement to Steven Kitshoff and others that his Bok race isn’t quite run.
Malcolm Marx (Lions)
One of the desperately few true gems of international rugby to emerge from the Springbok ranks last year, Marx, to his eternal credit, hasn’t been too distracted by all the good press. He’s stayed firmly focused and utterly indispensable to the Lions’ cause in Super Rugby 2018, carrying the ball with near-unrivalled power and ferocity and getting his formidable hands dirty with some vital turnovers. Another thing: his lineout throwing, once a sore point, is certainly correcting itself quite hearteningly too.
Adriaan Strauss (Bulls)
If Marx is the strongly “on the up” guy at hooker in SA, the veteran Strauss has cut a rejuvenated presence for the franchise just up the road from Jo’burg. Coach John Mitchell curtailed him to impact factor in the first few matches, preferring Jaco Visagie as starter … but that only seemed to further stir Strauss’s competitive juices. Sheer weight of excellence has seen him recapture the No 2 shirt more recently, and the 32-year-old has been playing every bit as well as in his prime. I’d say Strauss remains one of the most complete, efficient hookers in world rugby …
Pieter-Steph du Toit (Stormers)
Every now and then, Du Toit has still been prone to the occasional, costly lapse in concentration. But that’s largely because he has grafted so hard and near the furnace of things, week after week, that mistakes have often been inevitable. The blond, bruising competitor has uncomplainingly yo-yoed between lock and blindside flank … and whether he likes it or not, perhaps right now he is closer to a Test berth at No 7 than he is at five? Du Toit was colossal, in a sea of contrasting mediocrity around him, in that spot when the Stormers were whipped by the Lions at Emirates Airline Park recently, carrying tirelessly and with great effect, and making thump-back hits into the bargain.
Handre Pollard (Bulls)
It took a painstaking period of time for Pollard to regain his mojo after that pre-season cruciate ligament disaster in 2016, didn’t it? Cruelly and naively, some observers quickly forgot the aplomb and “BMT” he had shown as a rookie for the Springboks before the big setback - especially in some clashes with the mighty All Blacks. But Super Rugby 2018 has seen Pollard tangibly progress again back toward those levels. Still only 24, he has been a key element of the Bulls’ rebuild drive, playing with game-managing intelligence and sometimes useful gusto in recent weeks.
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