With all the hype surrounding last Saturday’s epic North vs. South showdown in Wellington, Quintin van Jaarsveld selects South African sides to square off in a mouth-watering Mzansi turf war.
The Covid-19 pandemic has turned rugby on its head, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, where SANZAAR has had to adapt after Super Rugby was suspended after seven rounds.
They’ve duly improvised, with New Zealand and Australia hosting domestic Super Rugby competitions – a model SA Rugby looks likely to follow once return-to-play gets green-lit by Government. There’s been innovation as well in the form of a few experimental laws, and then there’s the Kiwis taking a page out of pre-professional era times.
A throwback to the widely missed trials of old, last Saturday’s star-studded showdown served as a final opportunity for players to impress new All Blacks coach Ian Foster.
It was every bit the stunning showcase of skill and class it had shaped up to be – with Will Jordan scoring a last-gasp try to snatch a 38-35 win for the South – and has been the talk of the rugby world over the past couple of days.
What would the South African teams look like for a hypothetical Springbok trial? I’ve taken a stab at it, factoring in form, proven class and potential.
15: Gio Aplon (Bulls)
At 37, his international career is behind him, but the returning wizard deserves his place in the sun to remind South African rugby lovers of the magic he can weave after setting fields alight in France (for Grenoble) and Japan (for Toyota Verblitz) for the last six years.
14: Travis Ismael (Bulls)
Another returning Springbok, the hard-running wing is back at the Bulls after a stint at Harlequins. A big unit at 1.9m and 94kg, Ismaiel has power and pace in equal measure and a knack for scoring tries, like he did for the Springboks in the doomed Washington DC duel against Wales in 2018 – his only Test to date.
13: Wandisile Simelane (Lions)
Simelane is a lightning bolt of speed, skill and agility. The 2018 Junior Springbok Player of the Year hasn’t had the best 2020, with reported disciplinary issues holding him back, but those have seemingly been addressed. A can’t-miss athlete with a Green and Gold future.
12: Frans Steyn (Cheetahs)
A rare breed, even among the world’s elite. One of just two Springboks with two World Cup winner’s medals, local fans can’t wait to see Steyn mix it up with South Africa’s finest again. What better way for the Cheetahs’ marquee signing to make his much-anticipated comeback to South African rugby after years abroad than in this all-star showdown.
11: Rhyno Smith (Cheetahs)
A perfect example of a hot prospect an old-school trial is designed for. Smith showed glimpses of potential at the Sharks, but limited opportunities saw him join the Cheetahs, where he’s come into his own. A lethal weapon, he boasts a newly-won top try-scorer award for the curtailed 2019-20 PRO14 season after dotting down 10 times in 13 appearances.
10: Elton Jantjies (Lions)
A consummate professional, Jantjies’ position as back-up Springbok flyhalf is being threatened by the likes of Curwin Bosch and Damian Willemse. At 30, he probably doesn’t have another World Cup in him, but he’s as motivated as ever, jointly by a desire to give back to his beloved Lions and to lock down his place for next year’s British & Irish Lions series.
9: Ruan Pienaar (Cheetahs)
An older and wiser Pienaar made a remarkable late push for a Springbok return by playing a leading role in the Cheetahs’ Currie Cup triumph last year. A threat around the fringes in his prime, he’s matured into a game general, which isn’t what an entertainment-tailored trial is designed for but fits the Boks’ gameplan to a tee. Pairing up with Jantjies alone would be entertaining.
8: Duane Vermeulen (Bulls)
A juggernaut seemingly carved out of granite, the Bulls forked out a hefty amount to lure Vermeulen back to Loftus and he’s worth every cent. The prototypical power No.8, he’s one of the most physical players in the game today and has brains to go with his brawn. Man of the Match in last year’s World Cup final, he’d be the king of the North.
7: Arno Botha (Bulls)
One of several players who’s looking to make an immediate impact upon his return to South Africa. Strong and athletic, three seasons in Europe (first at London Irish and then at Munster) have only made him a better player. At 28, it’s not a coincidence that he’s opted to come back home to Loftus as he looks to add to the two Springbok caps he earned in 2013.
6: Jaco Kriel (Lions)
After two years at Gloucester ruined by injury, Kriel is raring to go and reclaim his place in the Springbok set-up after falling out of the mix in 2017. South Africa’s starting loose trio (Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Vermeulen) is set in stone, but Francois Louw’s retirement has opened the door for a new fetcher, where Kriel is among the top contenders.
5: Marvin Orie (Lions)
A world-class lineout general, Orie’s a victim of circumstance. The Springboks’ second-row stocks have never been greater with Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, Franco Mostert and RG Snyman having locked down their places after a near-perfect collective World Cup campaign. Injuries, as is currently the case, offer Orie an opportunity and he’ll like to remain first in line.
4: Jason Jenkins (Bulls)
The latest in the long list of Bull’s signings, home is where the heart is for Jenkins, who spent four years at the Pretoria side prior to his move overseas. It’s also the robust second-rower’s best potential path back to the national side, after winning his only Springbok cap against Wales in Washington DC in 2018.
3: Trevor Nyakane (Bulls)
A battle-tested and beloved Springbok veteran, Nyakane entered the next phase of his career this season, stepping up as Bulls captain during the curtailed Super Rugby tournament. A colossus at scrum time and impressively mobile in open play, the 31-year-old still has plenty of gas left in the tank.
2: Jaco Visagie (Lions)
The one weakness in the North’s armour. Visagie’s a solid, all-round player but he hasn’t produced performances to suggest he has an international future, which is why he didn’t factor into White’s plans and linked up with the Lions during lockdown.
1: Lizo Gqoboka (Bulls)
Arguably the unluckiest player to miss out on World Cup selection after having a stellar 2019. There simply wasn’t space for the rising star in the stacked Springbok front-row reserves. With the “Beast” having bowed out, now’s the time for the Bulls brute to seize the day, and a trial like this is an ideal opportunity to grab the brass ring.
16 Johan Grobbelaar (Bulls) 17 Dylan Smith (Lions), 18 Carlü Sadie (Lions), 19 Sintu Manjezi (Bulls), 20 Marco van Staden (Bulls), 21 Embrose Papier (Bulls), 22 Morné Steyn (Bulls), 23 Cornal Hendricks (Bulls).
15: Aphelele Fassi (Sharks)
Had the makings of a future Springboks at the end of 2019 and confirmed his class this year. A true game-changer, Fassi couldn’t be contained in the curtailed Super Rugby season, slicing and dicing his way through defences like a hot knife through butter. One of the stars of the Sharks’ surging campaign, the sky’s the limit for the “Weekend Special.”
14: Sbu Nkosi (Sharks)
If you had to identify one Sharks star who best fits the franchise’s Marvel superhero, it’s Nkosi. A supreme athlete, his sheer speed, explosiveness, agility and predatory nature makes him the closest thing there is to a real-life Black Panther. A born competitor who fights for every inch.
13: Lukhanyo Am (Sharks)
Arguably the best outside centre in the game today. On the grandest stage of them all, Am showed what a special talent he truly is. Not only that, his pivotal role in South Africa’s triumphant World Cup campaign also shined a light on his leadership traits, leading to him being named Sharks skipper and him being regarded as a possible future Springbok captain.
12: Rikus Pretorius (Stormers)
A puppy with big paws, Pretorius didn’t get much game time in his rookie senior season before the shutout. A key player for the Junior Springboks in 2018 and 2019, he showed bursts of his explosive exuberance whenever he took to the field for the Stormers and gained invaluable knowledge under the learning tree of Welsh import Jamie Roberts.
11: Makazole Mapimpi (Sharks)
A try-scoring machine! As simple as that. He’s scored 14 tries in 14 Tests, giving him the best Springbok try-scoring ratio of all-time. The hard-working winger famously etched his name in history by becoming the first South African to score a try in a World Cup final last year and is as dangerous and determined as they come.
10: Curwin Bosch (Sharks)
Patiently waited for his opportunity to show his worth at flyhalf and delivered in spades to take the Sharks to the top of the table at the suspension of the Super Rugby season. A prodigious playmaker who keeps defenders guessing and gives his team an extra gear by playing flat. Has a cool head on his shoulders and a massive boot à la Frans Steyn.
9: Herschel Jantjies (Stormers)
The revelation of 2019, going from little known Stormers replacement to bona fide Springbok. A livewire scrumhalf with natural attacking instincts that allow him to identify and exploit the smallest of gaps around the fringes. Mature well beyond his years and experience at top-flight level, he’s tactical kicking is solid and ever-improving.
8: Sikhumbuzo Notshe (Sharks)
Making the move from the Stormers to the Sharks, Notshe bet on himself and is firmly back in the Springbok conversation. Reinvigorated, he was remarkable across the park before Super Rugby was suspended, making surging breaks and brilliant offloads to set-up several tries. His eventual battle against Vermeulen promises to be an epic styles clash.
7: Pieter-Steph du Toit (Stormers)
The heroic hard yards he put in en route to his coronation as the best player in the world last year caught up with him this season as he fell victim to the injury curse in Cape Town. As the above-mentioned award signifies, there’s no-one like a healthy Du Toit with his otherworldly stamina. Rugby’s ultimate Terminator.
6: Siya Kolisi (Stormers)
A shocking late hit by Hurricanes hooker Ricky Riccitelli robbed the Springbok and Stormers captain of a chance to ride the wave of World Cup glory well before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Any team would welcome the services of the man named the most influential player in the world, both for his leadership and playing abilities.
5: Hyron Andrews (Sharks)
Similar stylistically to Orie, theirs is always an intriguing head-to-head battle and a trial scenario would take it to another level. Andrews is a lineout tactician and dynamic jumper, and what he lacks in mass and physicality he makes up for with good ball skills and an outstanding output.
4: Salmaan Moerat (Stormers)
A highly motivated Moerat shot out of the gate this season and maintained his good form right up to the lockout. With the big shoes of Eben Etzebeth to fill and hopes of a Springbok future, the former South African Under-20 skipper has stepped up his physicality and a trial like this would be an ideal gauge of how far he’s come in the shortened 2020 season.
3: Frans Malherbe (Stormers)
His hunger – or should I say desire – after the highs of last year’s World Cup glory is what made the biggest impression in my mind this year. Refusing to rest on his laurels, the deceptively mobile big man consistently racked up double-digit tackle stats on top of powerful scrummaging performances.
2: Scarra Ntubeni (Stormers)
With Bongi Mbonambi sidelined until 2021 after undergoing surgery, his Stormers teammate slots into the hooker berth. Not as burly and physical as Mbonambi, Ntubeni is a hard grafter with heaps of experience and a golden arm when it comes to lineout throwing. Would love to add to the Springbok cap he earned against Argentina last year.
1: Steven Kitshoff (Stormers)
A seasoned Springbok, the red-haired Stormers loosehead is primed to take over the Green and Gold No.1 jersey from the retired “Beast” for the long term. However, with the likes of Gqoboka and Ox Nche breathing down his neck, Kitshoff would want to prove a point in a trial like this.
16 Kerron van Vuuren (Sharks), 17 Ox Nche (Sharks), 18 Thomas du Toit (Sharks), 19 JD Schickerling (Stormers), 20 James Venter (Sharks), 21 Sanele Nohamba (Sharks), 22 Damian Willemse (Stormers), 23 Warrick Gelant (Stormers).