Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – In the fourth of a six-part examination of the South African teams’ resources for Super Rugby 2018, Sport24 studies the various loose forwards ... 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
READ: SA Super Rugby preview: The centres
READ: SA Super Rugby preview: The nines and tens
Among many intriguing calls, John Mitchell has placed firm confidence in versatile flank/eighth-man Nic de Jager, 25, to be the real deal for the Bulls this year, as he has been awarded the co-captaincy (with centre Burger Odendaal).
The coach must see something in him, as they say, both in leadership and playing calibre, because the former Saracens man has hitherto played little regular Super Rugby, although he skippered the Currie Cup side for part of 2017.
Stripped of Arno Botha and Jacques Potgieter this year (though both were injury-jinxed so much at Loftus anyway), it’s a fair sacrifice in loose forward experience, but Mitchell’s whole theme is gradual revival and his cupboard looks geared toward that - even as there seems no true world-beater at his disposal in the department right now.
A big point of interest will be to see whether fetcher Roelof Smit, after a lengthy layoff, finds the sort of form that earned him a 2016 Bok appearance against the Barbarians.
Smit excelling as a pilferer and astute linker would give the Bulls someone in the mould of Deon Stegmann, a yeoman (if penalty-prone?) servant at No 6 for many years in Pretoria, but nowadays plying his twilight-years trade in the less stressful landscape of Japan.
There’ll be sufficient physicality from big units like Hanro Liebenberg and Jannes Kirsten, but expect also some athletic exploits from men like Tim Agaba and Themba Bholi as Mitchell coaxes some his charges into trying to sidestep or out-sprint opponents rather than crudely mow them down in time-honoured, old Bulls style.
If the Bulls do find the right blend between guile and grunt at loose forward during the campaign, I might feel more inclined to hike the unremarkable, initial rating provided directly below ...
Loose forward pool of talent rating: 5/10
Look, the Lions still have two-thirds of the potent, well-balanced loosie combo they boasted when big, rugged Ruan Ackermann (now Gloucester) remained their blind-sider and occasional eighth-man last year.
Still only 22, he’s a big loss to the Jo’burgers, but the heartening return of captain Warren Whiteley in time for the start of the new campaign counter-balances that quite nicely.
Whiteley will be a man on a mission, considering that he was just settling promisingly into the Springbok leadership saddle in the middle of last year before he was cruelly side-lined for many months.
The intelligence and skill set he brings at No 8 will be invaluable, and it won’t be long (March, reportedly) before another standout Gautenger at loose forward, Jaco Kriel, is back to maraud in tandem with him.
That still leaves, of course, the issue of plugging No 7, where ideally someone with a generous physique would serve as a suitable foil for mobile Whiteley and Kriel.
Cyle Brink, 24, is a fine talent with best years possibly still ahead of him, and puts his body on the line even if he isn’t quite in the Ackermann league for cranking the needle up on the bathroom scale.
Another option is long-serving Robert Kruger, who has a lock’s build but is equally at home on the side of the scrum.
For additional stocks in a more tearaway capacity, remember, the Lions can boast Kwagga Smith – huge interest countrywide in how he fares, now fully Sevens-free - plus young Len Massyn, who doubles as an open-sider and No 8, and another flair-oozing tyro whose name is worth memorising: Hacjivah Dayimani.
Loose forward pool of talent rating: 6.5/10
The Kings Park outfit have surrendered two proven, gnarly blindside-geared flankers - Jean Deysel and versatile Etienne Oosthuizen - to northern climes this year.
But if that’s the down side, the “up” one is that they continue to look comfortably healthy enough when it comes to broad loosie stocks for the long Super Rugby slog.
It’s an agreeable blend of youth and experience, too.
Competitors like untiring, 32-year-old Keegan Daniel (who knows and fits into the Sharks culture better than most), Philip van der Walt and Tera Mtembu combine natural leadership qualities with their rugby attributes -- especially useful when you go on tour.
But the up-and-coming arsenal isn’t exactly shabby, either: just for starters, it shouldn’t be too long before those barnstorming Bok twins, Jean-Luc and Dan du Preez, are reunited in the Sharks starting line-up (Jean-Luc is on the mend from an ankle injury, and expected back late next month).
But remember also that former Paarl Gym and SA under-20 star Jacques Vermeulen was finally starting to show signs of his fullest worth at first-class level last season, and another option for coach Robert du Preez is Tyler Paul being drafted into a flank berth.
Just turned 23, Paul, born in Duiwelskloof but educated in the Eastern Cape, cut his senior teeth with the Kings, but was a shrewd acquisition for the Sharks last year: whether at loosie or in the second row, you can generally expect an urgent, full-blooded shift from him and this could be his “big break” year.
Loose forward pool of talent rating: 6.5/10
Several of them haven’t quite “arrived” at Super Rugby level yet ... but that’s also what makes the current crop of loosies at Newlands so exciting, really.
At a rough guess, Robbie Fleck and his lieutenants will have available up to nine players (effectively three sets of them) capable of cutting it in the competition, a satisfying scenario given the ever-present likelihood of injuries both serious and short-term.
The most senior personnel, and early favourites for prime starting slots, are Springboks Siya Kolisi, the franchise leader who made such heartening strides in the 2017 Test year despite the broader green-and-gold gloom, and Nizaam Carr.
Cerebral eighth-man (or sometimes open-sider) Carr comes off an educative, clearly highly-valued stint with Wasps in the English Premiership, and at 26 it is far from a fait accompli that his own tally of Bok caps has come to a grinding halt.
He will have to be managed carefully, considering his almost non-existent off-season, but the Stormers are pretty good at that and, as mentioned, depth is hardly a drawback.
Other attractive No 8 options include the tearaway Sikhumbuzo Notshe - he doesn’t seem fully aware yet of how good he could be, mind - and Juarno “Trokkie” Augustus, the young wrecking ball from the recent SA under-20 ranks who begins on the crocked list, alas.
But the Capetonian cupboard is also brimful with promising flanks, some of them comfortable on either side.
Fit-again Steph de Wit (ex-Lions) will challenge for the stealing chore, and even bigger things are anticipated – albeit perhaps on the blind-side - of Upington-born Cobus Wiese who brings some “attitude”; useful with card-prone hard man Rynhardt Elstadt gone.
Kobus van Dyk, 23, and Jaco Coetzee, 21, are others whose stars should keep rising, whilst bear in mind also that Bok lock Pieter-Steph du Toit offers increasingly good credentials, should the need ever arise, at No 7.
Loose forward pool of talent rating: 7/10
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