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    Super Rugby: Hooker exodus alarm bells for SA teams

    2020-01-06 14:00

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - The Bulls’ Schalk Brits … gone. The Sharks’ Akker van der Merwe … gone. The Lions’ Malcolm Marx ... gone, if at least not on a permanent basis in his case.

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    Spot the common denominator?

    Yes, the Stormers will be the only one of the South African quartet of Super Rugby teams in 2020 not to be hit - unless injury intervenes, of course - by the absence, from last year’s campaign, of usually first-choice hookers.

    Newlands-based coach John Dobson will still have available both Bongi Mbonambi, the tigerish competitor who started the immortal 2019 World Cup final for the Springboks, and the never-say-die (despite an appalling litany of prior ill-luck in injury terms) but also suitably streetwise Scarra Ntubeni for the job in the Nos 2 and 16 jerseys when the competition begins at the end of January.

    Mbonambi, who turns 29 on Tuesday, has been on Western Province contractual terms since switching base from Loftus in 2015, while Ntubeni also knows the Western Cape rugby culture extremely well, as he has been part of the WP furniture - despite awfully long stints under surgery or in rehab from it - since his more junior-level days as far back as 2010.

    It is a more reassuring position than will be the case for all of Dobson’s three counterparts around the country.

    Flying the local coop to more lucrative deals in northern climes has become a depressing but inevitable phenomenon across the positions, of course, but hooker is one of those key, spinal berths in a rugby team where longevity and wisdom at the art is especially important.

    So central in a broadest sense to the pack, the modern hooker is massively responsible for a shipshape lineout with his throwing-in function, smack at the fulcrum of the scrummaging effort, a manager and carrier in rolling mauls, and often a supplementary “fetcher” of no small value into the bargain.

    Stormers apart, then, the SA outfits this year look like being lower on experience and depth in the position than they would like.

    Best finishers of the four (though the Jaguares won the conference and went on to be beaten finalists) in 2019, the Bulls revelled in the one-season services of that grand master of the hooking slot, Brits, in his 38th - and then 39th, from May - year, but hardly showing it as he busied himself dynamically in general play and was pinpoint at lineout time as well.

    This year they are likely to have Jaco Visagie back in the role of senior hooker … at very least a man well versed in Super Rugby culture as it began for him in 2015, and he has since gratifyingly become more of a global citizen with his stints at Gloucester and Toulouse.

    Perhaps the under-rated Edgar Marutlulle, once a major factor in the infant years of the Southern Kings, will also resurface for the Pretoria cause in 2020 after significant spells on the injury-linked sidelines; a more youthful option will be just turned 22-year-old former SA U20 star Johan Grobbelaar.

    The Sharks, meanwhile, must look on quite ruefully when they read some of the rave reviews around Van der Merwe’s open-play exploits for namesakes in the England Premiership the Sale Sharks, where he now plies his trade.

    It clearly didn’t take long for the “Angry Warthog” to become something of a cult figure at the Salford-based team, and Durban fans must be disappointed that his service in that city only lasted two Super Rugby campaigns from 2018 after his switch from Johannesburg … regular centre stage now seems to beckon in the void for Kerron van Vuuren, who was first blooded in Super Rugby last year and does show promise.

    Speaking of the Big Smoke, the Lions are naturally, heavily hamstrung this year by the absence for the first time in some six years of that 114kg chunk of muscle and go-forward menace Marx.

    Their collective star is arguably on the wane anyway after several years of admirable competitiveness at the very top end of the competition, and surrendering Springbok stalwart Marx’s rare level of X-factor in 2020 won’t help one bit.

    The player has effectively been granted a sabbatical by his bosses for this season, as part of a deal that ensures he stays on their books in key 2021 - British and Irish Lions tour year - and he is operating at the less demanding level at present of Japanese club rugby for Shining Arcs.

    But it firmly increases the onus on Pieter Jansen (second year of Super Rugby after a trickle of appearances in 2019) to expand his development fast as likely first choice for the Lions in the jersey this season …

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Fixtures

    Friday, 31 January 2020
    • Blues v Chiefs, Eden Park 08:05
    • Brumbies v Reds, GIO Stadium 10:15
    • Sharks v Bulls, Jonsson Kings Park Stadium 19:10
    Saturday, 01 February 2020
    • Sunwolves v Rebels, Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium 05:45
    • Crusaders v Waratahs, Trafalgar Park 08:05
    • Stormers v Hurricanes, Cape Town 15:05
    • Jaguares v Lions, Estadio Jose Amalfitani 23:40
    Friday, 07 February 2020
    • Highlanders v Sharks, Forsyth Barr Stadium 08:05
    • Brumbies v Rebels, GIO Stadium 10:15

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