Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - In the second of a six-part examination of the South African teams’ resources for Super Rugby 2018, Rob Houwing studies the various midfields … also providing a score out of 10 in each instance for expected level of health in the department.
READ: SA Super Rugby preview: The back threes
After a five-year association with them, the Bulls have to make do this year without one of the better features of an iffy Loftus backline in recent times: Jan Serfontein.
Still only 24, the Springbok midfielder is now with Montpellier and leaves a significant hole, not least because he could wear the No 13 jersey if required (albeit that most will agree inside centre is his supreme station).
Nevertheless, coach John Mitchell has really empowered the strapping, direct Burger Odendaal to command the “twelve” channel in 2018 by awarding him co-captaincy of the franchise.
Outside of Odendaal, expect Jesse Kriel to start the campaign at No 13 even if he has certain, lingering doubters, based around some sterile times in an underwhelming Bok backline last year.
But if Mitchell can draw better spark out of the Bulls three-quarters as a whole this year, Kriel ought to prosper in a parallel way.
Otherwise, the Loftus-based side don’t have too much else to write home about in midfield: 21-year-old former SA U20 player JT Jackson sports promise but no proper prior experience in the competition yet, and Johnny Kotze, for all his busy energy, was basically deemed surplus to requirements at the Stormers after 2016.
Psst, there are a few people who would like to see Handre Pollard tried out at inside centre some time, although he is far likelier to be preoccupied with chief flyhalf duties …
Midfield pool of talent rating: 5.5/10
The runners-up in the competition for each of the last two seasons will have four centres of already-known Super Rugby calibre to be able to call upon, as long as injuries don’t intervene too heavily.
Howard Mnisi knows all about those: he is on the bounce-back from a gruesome long-term right knee injury, picked up early in the 2017 season in Bloemfontein when all of the various, key ligaments in the area were either torn or significantly damaged.
Expect the sturdy midfielder to make a cautious, gradual reappearance to this level of competition, with Swys de Bruin possibly considering his top three centres, initially, to be Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Harold Vorster and Lionel Mapoe.
There is a well-stocked fan club for the powerhouse who is Van Rensburg to be freshly summoned to international duty this year - possibly against tough nuts England in the June home series - although neutral rugby connoisseurs will also be hoping this player has sharpened his skills and peripheral awareness levels.
If he has found some subtlety to add to his brawnier gifts, he will take some stopping.
Vorster brings some pleasingly cerebral, line-straightening and breaking qualities to the mix, whilst Mapoe, who turns 30 in July, is in a race to reconvince the Springboks of his own merits after an iffy career in green and gold thus far.
One thing is almost always guaranteed about Mapoe for the Lions, however: a healthy nose for the tryline.
Midfield pool of talent rating: 7.5/10
The number of “gas men” in the wider berths for the Sharks was trumpeted on Sport24 in the first of these previews on Tuesday.
If the emphasis is on dreamy levels of speed at wing in Durban, the midfield looks as though it will be marked primarily by healthy volumes of “grunt”, if you like.
Again, the Sharks are pretty well blessed for depth at centre, especially if that effective, human battering ram Andre Esterhuizen (1.92m, 103kg) has finally learnt to curb that penchant for really stupid, costly lapses in discipline like tip-tackles.
Esterhuizen should nail down No 12, assuming he does keep a suitably cool head, with the Namibian-born former flanker Marius Louw, 22, as possible main cover there; he played the 2017 Currie Cup final in the berth.
Highly-touted, long-legged Lukhanyo Am, who also gets pleasingly busy over the ball to winkle turnovers, seems favourite for outside centre, and is another Sharks backliner with big Test aspirations this year.
Add in Jeremy Ward, Johan Deysel and the transferable qualities (to No 13) of wing Kobus van Wyk, and coach Robert du Preez snr shouldn’t have to sweat that much over the extent of his midfield arsenal.
Midfield pool of talent rating: 7/10
Although he was frustratingly injury-prone for big tracts of his Newlands career, the Stormers must finally adjust to life completely without Juan de Jongh, now plying his trade in England after eight loyal years on their books.
Coupled with the untimely surrender of fast-emerging Huw Jones to northern climes and a budding future with the Scottish national team, a certain sense of regrouping is necessary in the Newlands midfield area.
Especially given the departures of De Jongh and Jones, so much could depend, for their vibrancy in the department, on whether big Damian de Allende manages to rediscover the creative sparkle and assertiveness that have gone largely AWOL from his game over the past couple of years.
A pairing of De Allende and, at No 13, another tall figure in EW Viljoen, seems smart money as Robbie Fleck’s intended first-choice duo at centre - that should particularly apply in the waiting period until Dan du Plessis regains fitness to bolster stocks further.
Viljoen, still only 22, lost just a bit of mojo towards the end of last year, but if he is mentally and physically fresh again may nail down a regular first-team ticket.
Dan Kriel remains thereabouts, and remember that returning journeyman JJ Engelbrecht, although a wing option, earned nine starts in the Heyneke Meyer era for the Boks at thirteen.
Midfield pool of talent rating: 6/10
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