Super Rugby: SA teams catching the 'Brits bug'

    2019-11-26 13:13

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - Schalk Brits may well have been at least partly responsible, in all the right ways, for the growing trend.

    South African teams in Super Rugby are waking up to the potential of recruiting gnarly "super-veterans" to help balance their increasingly youth-dominated squads - a result of the debilitating annual defections of seasoned personnel abroad.

    The news that 37-year-old Springbok tighthead prop and former Sharks stalwart Jannie du Plessis will bolster the Lions' cause comes on top of the Bulls having the back-on-board services - after fairly lengthy absences in each case from Loftus - of lock Juandre Kruger (34) and flyhalf points machine Morne Steyn (35).

    Meanwhile the Stormers also appear to have jumped on the bandwagon of ensuring voluminous experience in a key berth by shelving initial plans to bid farewell to currently Barbarians-active scrumhalf Jano Vermaak, the almost 35-year-old who, head coach John Dobson revealed a few days ago, they intend now to retain on a short-term deal if possible.

    With a few weeks to go before the new season, don't completely write off the possibility that other "evergreens" ready for a fresh dose of southern-hemisphere sunshine on their backs join the inward mini-migration.

    The quartet of domestic franchises in the competition, beginning in late January, have all been particularly hard hit by prime-of-career exoduses for the 2020 campaign, so snapping up any returning, household names seeking a last hurrah on the first-class scene in their land of birth has become flavour of the month.

    These players are important balancers in age terms, help create a much-needed semblance of squad depth - something the SA outfits generally boast less and less of these days - and could be invaluable as mentors and motivators, into the bargain.

    It is also worth keeping in mind that three of the four SA teams - Lions (Ivan van Rooyen), Stormers (John Dobson) and Sharks (Sean Everitt) - will feature head coaches having their baptisms in Super Rugby, an unprecedented hallmark, so the wealth of knowledge accumulated worldwide by veteran players on their books is additionally worth weight in gold.

    While there is every chance the confirmed signings would have occurred anyway (Kruger and Steyn having a nostalgic final fling in Pretoria has been known for months), the success of much-travelled Brits in being coaxed out of retirement by Rassie Erasmus to join the Springbok World Cup-winning party in Japan will only have enhanced the belief among pro rugby recruiters that such outright veterans have lingering appeal - regardless of how much, or little, they may actually contribute in personal game-time.

    While clearly also the sort of good-humoured, positive personality all rugby squads cherish having in their midst, the 38-year-old hooker and sometimes loose forward proved a wonderful addition to the Bok "dirt-tracker" plans against lesser nations during RWC 2019, captaining the cause once and frankly looking anything but his especially advanced age for mobility and appetite.

    Just off a single Super Rugby season in Pretoria, Brits also remained an integral part of Bok lineout plans and execution, with his deadeye throwing ability ... a department where Kruger, albeit in a slightly different way as a second-rower, will help substantially to rebuild the franchise's effectiveness.

    The Bulls have been decimated on that front by the departures of all of tall-timber men RG Snyman, Lood de Jager and Jason Jenkins, while Duane Vermeulen also no longer being available takes away a strong recipient option at the back of the lineout.

    Not only is Kruger a good banker in the middle of that set-piece, but he should become an attractive prospect once more as caller in the department.

    A 17-cap international in Heyneke Meyer's Bok coaching tenure, the former Racing Metro and Toulon stalwart last played for the Bulls in 2013, but will instantly - like Steyn in the backline - become of their most seasoned figures in the pack.

    The Bulls have also got Josh Strauss (33), the Bellville-born former Lions captain and No 8 who has since represented Scotland at Test level, to put pen to paper for a late-career deal at Loftus.

    There will be those, you can be fairly sure, questioning whether Lions-based front-ranker Du Plessis is just too much beyond his halcyon years to be a factor once more in generally quick-tempo Super Rugby.

    The 2007 World Cup winner - and doctor in his other life - last played in the competition in 2015, amidst a Sharks eight featuring such now long-departed names as Etienne Oosthuizen, Marco Wentzel, Willem Alberts and Renaldo Bothma, and he already seemed a notable veteran even then.

    He is unlikely to closely know too many of a callow Lions side he now infuses, although the educative qualities he will transfer to Carlu Sadie, 15 years his junior and still well short of his anticipated premier years as a No 3 scrum anchor-man, should not be under-estimated.

    But the same characteristic could well apply down at Newlands, where the Stormers keeping the street-wise Vermaak as cover for and useful advisor to emerging Bok No 9 gem Herschel Jantjies could pay dividends.

    They are thin in the department if injury were to suddenly afflict Jantjies - though his eagerly-awaited partnership with Damian Willemse potentially gives the Capetonians one of the most exhilarating nine/ten combos in the competition - and if they can also keep the three-Test-cap Vermaak fit himself (he has been horribly jinxed in recent years), they will possess at least one really experienced figure in an area of the park requiring astute game management and peripheral awareness.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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