A potent mix of decorated stalwarts and emerging stars make up our Currie Cup Team of the Tournament, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Summer rugby? Boxing Day rugby? The Currie Cup rolling over to the next calendar year? It was indeed a most bizarre edition of South Africa’s premier domestic rugby competition due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. Fittingly, it was a final unlike any other at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, one that was interrupted by a nearby thunderstorm and went into extra-time after the scores were tied at 19-all after 80 minutes.
The Bulls were pushed to the brink by a spirited Sharks side, but Jake White’s men showed true grit to come from behind and snatch the silverware with a last-gasp try by super-sub Arno Botha. The former Springbok flank’s dot down in the 98th minute of the dramatic decider secured a heart-stopping 26-19 win for the Bulls, earning the pride of Pretoria their first Currie Cup title since 2009 and seeing them secure their second title of the overhauled season two months after having won Super Rugby Unlocked.
Overall, the standard of play wasn’t up to scratch – the stop-start nature of the majority of matches looking more like American football – and paled in comparison with the previous year’s sublime season. All things considered, though, the players deserve a bit of slack.
Having said that, the Currie Cup remained a platform for fresh faces to make a name for themselves and proven stars to show their worth. Eight members of the triumphant Bulls have been included in our team, including the Player of the Tournament. Losing finalists the Sharks have three representatives in the side, with semi-finalists Western Province and the Lions having two each.
15: Tiaan Swanepoel (Lions)
The revelation of the season for the Lions. A match-winner on debut, booting his team to a dramatic win over Province, including landing a monster 61m penalty to immediately put himself on the map. Kicked on from there to prove he’s the real deal, not just with his accurate, bazooka-like right boot but on attack as well, where he was the Lions’ primary ball-carrying back and ran in three tries.
14: Sbu Nkosi (Sharks)
Boasting an unrivalled blend of pace, power and freakish athleticism, Nkosi was a threat every time he touched the ball and produced a number of magical moments that became instant Currie Cup classics. From stunning all and sundry with a smash and grab try from a restart against the Pumas to scoring the opening try of the final in scintillating fashion (time-stamped below), the Sharks flyer could hardly be contained and pipped the impressive Kurt-Lee Arendse.
13: Lukhanyo Am (Sharks)
Wandisile Simelane enhanced his reputation as a Springbok in waiting, making key plays at crucial times. However, despite an injury-enforced spell on the sidelines, Am stood tall at No.13. Led from the front in the league games against the Bulls and Griquas and shifted into top gear in the playoffs. Backed up a big semi-final display with an even more prolific performance in the final, which saw him make 14 tackles and win a turnover on the deck in the 47th minute.
12: Cornal Hendricks (Bulls) – Player of the Tournament
As spectacular as Frans Steyn was for the Cheetahs, Hendricks’ story is arguably the greatest comeback in South African rugby history. From a life-threatening heart condition to being willing to play his way back at club level to an astonishing reinvention at No.12, the former Springbok wing’s heroics throughout the season, which he capped off with Man of the Match performances in the semi-final and final, is the stuff of legend. As such, he’s our Player of the Tournament.
11: Yaw Penxe (Sharks)
Snapped up from the Kings and seamlessly slotted into the Sharks set-up, looking at home in the star-studded backline. Grew in stature week-in and week-out, was the only shining light in the loss to the Cheetahs, was great against Griquas the following week and finished a breakout season with a stellar showing in his first final. Was great under the high ball and massive on defence, making a joint-final-high 15 tackles. Special mention must be made of the electric Eduan Keyter, who finished as the tournament’s top try-scorer with four five-pointers.
10: Morné Steyn (Bulls)
The perfect general for the Pretoria side’s style of play, steering them to a domestic double through sublime game management rooted in pinpoint precision. As the sole survivor of the last Bulls side to clinch the Currie Cup back in 2009, the master tactician is truly ageing like fine wine. It came down to Steyn and Curwin Bosch, who played pivotal roles in their team’s progression to the final, where the 36-year-old’s vast experience shone in contrast with the shaky showing by the Sharks flyhalf.
9: Ivan van Zyl (Bulls)
A return to prominence for the forgotten Springbok. Having Fourie du Preez, one of the greatest scrumhalves of all time, as a mentor this season elevated his game to the level that earned him all six of his Test caps back in 2018. Tactically, he was much improved in terms of decision-making and execution and was sharp on attack, particularly by putting runners into space with pop passes around the ruck. More than anything, though, it was clear that he’d regained his confidence.
8: Duane Vermeulen (Bulls)
Added to his legend by leading the Bulls to their first Currie Cup title in 11 years. Undoubtedly the Pretoria side’s most valuable player, his calm, commanding leadership was at the core of the Bulls’ resurgence and cannot be overstated. A grizzled juggernaut who smashed defenders over like bowling pins and punished ball carriers with ferocious hits, all while featuring prominently at the breakdown and in the lineouts.
7: Elrigh Louw (Bulls)
The burgeoning back-rower was a tireless terror, a relentless physical force, be it with ball in hand or on defence. Power personified with timing and technique to match, best highlighted when he smashed back opposite number Henco Venter, popped back to his feet and pounced on the ball to win a penalty in the first quarter of the final. A thoroughbred with a bright future.
6: Marco van Staden (Bulls)
The likes of Gideon van der Merwe and Daniel Maartens put themselves on the map, while ex-Junior Springbok Dylan Richardson’s star continued to rise. However, Van Staden was the master marauder. His speed to the breakdown, understanding of when to compete for the ball and technique to win turnovers were unmatched. Tireless tackler (made a team-high nine hits in the final) and used his low centre of gravity to his advantage to consistently advance over the gain line.
5: Ruan Nortje (Bulls)
One of the revelations of the season, the former Junior Springbok’s pedigree was clear to see. Was a pillar of strength in the lineouts and mauls and prominent in the gain line battle. The 22-year-old showed he’s a man for big moments as well, stealing a lineout on his 5m line with five minutes remaining to put the final nail in the Lions’ coffin in the semi-final and made a crucial steal at the end of the first half of extra time in the dramatic decider. A future Springbok for sure.
4: Willem Alberts (Lions)
“The Bone Collector” added a string of victims to his legendary list, proving that even at 36 and in a new role in the second row, he’s still one of the biggest and baddest brutalisers in the business. Gave the Lions the good old-fashioned muscle and mongrel they needed and did so in dominant fashion. Led the team in carries, delivered a monstrous Man of the Match performance against the Sharks and scored his side’s opening try to spark them into life in the Loftus semi-final (time-stamped below).
3: Frans Malherbe (Western Province)
With their World Cup-winning front row, Province’s greatest weapon was their scrum, and Malherbe set the tone for their dominance. On top of that, he was typically mobile across the park, eating up metres, making double-digit tackles and even managing a turnover here and there, silencing those who criticised him for his lockdown ‘boep.’ Shaded Thomas du Toit, who was especially colossal in the final.
2: Johan Grobbelaar (Bulls)
White went with a rotation policy at hooker and it was Grobbelaar who made the strongest case to make the No.2 jersey his own moving forward. Was outstanding in the runaway win over the Cheetahs and seized the day in the final after having started the semi-final on the bench. Provided the accuracy that was lacking against the Lions, ensuring the hosts won all their lineouts with spot-on throwing and won a breakdown penalty in the 80th minute, which highlighted the hard work he’d done throughout the season.
1: Steven Kitshoff (Western Province)
Is there a better loosehead in the game today? The season only showed what a gulf exists between him and the rest of the country’s looseheads, and that’s saying a lot. He was colossal in every aspect, machine-like in his unprecedented well-roundedness and tireless work rate, with leadership ability added in and seemingly sans weaknesses. Made 40 carries to top the list with Steyn and Alberts at the end of the regular season and was sorely missed in the semi-final showdown against the Sharks due to Covid-19 protocols.