Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Here is my personal choice, in a round-by-round exercise, of South African players to lead the charge for excellence in the fifth week of Super Rugby 2020.
GOLD: Lukhanyo Am (Sharks)
The fourth and final game of your overseas tour, when legs and minds may be tiring: it’s as fitting a time as any for the captain to lead by example.
That was what occurred in the case of the Sharks’ Lukhanyo Am on Saturday, as his personal performance, for me, narrowly topped the pile amidst another bunch of standouts from their ranks in a praiseworthy 33-23 downing of the Reds in Brisbane.
The Bok midfielder, who played a starring role in the World Cup final against England a few months ago, had been shrewdly rested by coach Sean Everitt against the Rebels a week earlier - and duly emerged as a thoroughly refreshed, appetite-laden figure at Suncorp Stadium as the Sharks ensured a sparkling three-from-four tour record.
Am’s great strength (a little Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie-like in yesteryear) is to sense opportunities … especially when they involve pinching a ball from under the opposition’s noses.
That came into play to crucially game-altering effect midway through the final quarter against the Reds, when the game was still right in the balance as the Sharks protected a tenuous five-point lead and thoughts of the long haul back to South Africa probably already starting to tease.
The outside centre intercepted a pass as the Reds attempted a raid from midway out, and dashed around 40 metres to dot down triumphantly and knock the wind irreversibly from the home side’s sails.
But apart from that effectively game-settling score, Am bristled with constructive energy throughout, his decision-making more often than not top-notch and the more defence-related side of his game (including slowing down the Reds’ recycling at rucks) also bang on the mark.
SILVER: Sikhumbuzo Notshe (Sharks)
Yes, Notshe won “gold” on this platform based on the triumph over the Rebels last week ... and truth be told, he was barely less sublime in his immediate follow-up game at Brisbane.
The delightfully swerving, attack-minded and quick-from-the-blocks No 8 again emerged as the Sharks’ premier forward, by my book, as the KwaZulu-Natalians ensured an Aussie-leg clean sweep.
His hand skills were once again supremely to the fore (though rookie open-side flanker Dylan Richardson, 21, was no slouch, either) in the latest triumph.
Just as importantly, though, Notshe maintained his consistency when it comes to the earthier needs of eighth-man play: like a high tackle count and strength and urgency on feet in the carrying department.
On current form, the ex-Stormers player - who gets a chance to tackle his old franchise in just under two weeks at Kings Park - looks an ideal back-up at Test level for gnarly Bok veteran Duane Vermeulen, increasingly likely to push on for selection for the British and Irish Lions series next year.
An hour of “Thor” mongrel, followed up by 20 minutes of Notshe stepping and sprinting: what’s not to like?
BRONZE: Elton Jantjies (Lions)
This could so easily have been yet another Sharks player, in a round where they solely carried the South African flag with any distinction.
But amidst the disappointment of a tour-opening 29-17 reverse to the previously winless Waratahs at Parramatta, I felt the sometimes unfairly maligned Jantjies was more exempt than most around him from criticism over the result.
On a day when several of the Lions’ outside backs were guilty of dubious option-taking, the Bok pivot seemed much more in-tune with what was required strategically, and his leadership showed no obvious gremlins, either.
Had it not been for a nightmare start (19-3 down in 17 minutes), the Jo’burgers would have been right in the picture for a heartening win, and if so Jantjies’ pretty assured general play - including some elusive moments with ball in hand and one or two committed tackles on substantially bigger foes – would have been a key influencer.
Considering the ongoing shaky form of “No 3” Test flyhalf Damian Willemse for the Stormers, the left-footed Jantjies is probably only solidifying his hold as main back-up to Handre Pollard.
*Agree? Disagree? Let me hear your own SA player ‘podium’ thoughts from the weekend on Twitter: @RobHouwing