Players young and old hit 2021 running and the best have been rewarded with places in our Team of the Preparation Series, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Selecting a side was a unique exercise this time around as teams consistently chopped and changed with coaches testing new combinations and spreading game time across their wider squads with an eye toward tournament action. In some positions, consistency was king, while in others, it was a case of quality over quantity.
Both the Stormers and the Cheetahs contribute a quartet of standouts to our side. A trio of Bulls and a pair of Sharks made the cut, while the MVP of the Lions and Griquas respectively round out our team.
15: Clayton Blommetjies (Cheetahs)
Damian Willemse had a blinder against the Bulls, but Blommetjies was brilliant back-to-back in the opening rounds. Created a cracking counter-attacking try for partner-in-crime Rosko Specman with a silky sidestep against the Stormers and sparked three tries against the Sharks. Great clearance kicks and good in the air. Special mention must be made of Masixole Banda, who “balled” for Griquas.
14: Werner Kok (Sharks)
A human tornado. As always, Kok’s extreme energy and work rate were superhuman. In the Black and White, he truly is like a shark that smells blood in the water. Stellar in his starting appearances against Griquas and the Lions and impactful off the bench, the long-haired Blitzbok scored and set-up tries.
13: Ruhan Nel (Stormers)
Strong, skillful and consistent. A dual-threat, he stormed over the gain line nine times out of 10 in heavy traffic and sliced through on several occasions with silky stepping when he had a bit more room. Sealed his spot by outplaying his strongest competition Wandisile Simelane at the weekend, leaving him in his dust when he set-up fellow Blitzbok Seabelo Senatla’s try.
12: Frans Steyn (Cheetahs)
While the general focus was on up-and-coming talent, the likes of the two-time World Cup winner showed the immense value of experience. Starred in the Cheetahs’ victories over the Stormers and Sharks, scoring 14 points in each. Slotted six out of six in Cape Town and landed the match-winner in Bloemfontein. A beastly ball-carrier and kicked well out of hand.
11: Rosko Specman (Cheetahs)
A magician par excellence. Stole the show with an electrifying hat-trick in the historic clash at Cape Town Stadium to earn the Player of the Week honours in the opening round and followed it up with another banger in Bloemfontein against the Sharks. Lanky speedster Christopher Hollis, meanwhile, made a name for himself as a shining light for the struggling Eastern Province Elephants.
10: Kade Wolhuter (Stormers)
The 19-year-old prodigy looked at home in the Stormers No.10 jersey. Produced the type of promising performances that suggest he might be the answer to the franchise’s years-long flyhalf problem. Provided shape and momentum on attack fans of the Cape side have been clamouring for, sparking a memorable try for Sergeal Petersen in the game against Griquas while being solid tactically and good at goal.
9: Ruan Pienaar (Cheetahs)
Like Steyn, Pienaar was worth his weight in gold for the Cheetahs. The vastly-experienced scrumhalf schooled his younger opposition in the art of game-management. Has forgotten more about dictating terms than the rookies who were on show have learned at this early stage of their careers, his match-winning cameo in his first game back from injury against the Stormers being a prime example.
8: Nizaam Carr (Bulls) – Player of the Series
Filling the role as stand-in skipper and the consistent game time that came with it did Carr and the Bulls wonders. Showed what an invaluable squad man he’s going to be for Jake White. Good enough to start in the big games if called upon and an ideal senior international to lead a younger matchday side like he showed as the fulcrum of the team throughout the series. Was prominent in every aspect, at No.8 and No.6.
7: Vincent Tshituka (Lions)
Enhanced his reputation as a highly gifted player on the brink of stardom. One of the best pure athletes among South African back-rowers, which speaks volumes, and was one of the leading turnover artists in the series. Just rewatch the starring role he played in the win over the Sharks, which saw him show off his scintillating speed to score a try, toughness and staying power (having made a team-high 11 carries and 18 tackles).
6: Gideon van der Merwe (Griquas)
An insatiable predator who inspired his team and troubled the opposition with his fiery determination. Underlined his status as Griquas’ juggernaut with one all-action performance after the other. That said, his standout performance came in Gqeberha, where he blew the Elephants out of the water at the breakdown, bagged a brace and made 14 tackles.
5: Janko Swanepoel (Bulls)
A pillar of strength. The 21-year-old showcased his exciting potential with standout performances against the Elephants and Pumas. Stole lineouts and was a workhorse in every facet of play. Made complete contributions – strong carries and punishing tackles and was dominant in the rucks and mauls. Rising star Reinhard Nothnagel also made his mark and looked comfortable captaining the side in their first two games.
4: JJ van der Mescht (Sharks)
A baby-faced beast. The 21-year-old bullied seasoned senior players and outhustled them. Good against Griquas and great against the Bulls in Pretoria, where he powered over for an important try. Destined for big things is the former Junior Springbok. Pumas powerhouse Brandon Valentine also made his presence felt.
3: Neethling Fouché (Stormers)
An athlete. A true modern tighthead, he’s more than just a force at scrum time, where he crushed the Cheetahs, in particular. Maintained a magnificent work rate for a big man, was strong in contact, contested the breakdown and showcased special ball skills. Definitely one to keep an eye on.
2: Joe van Zyl (Bulls)
Strengthened his case to take ownership of the Bulls No.2 jersey. Consistently spot-on lineout throwing gave the men from Pretoria the perfect platform to attack from. Even more impressively, he was outstanding in open play. Provided a memorable try-assist for David Kriel, scored three tries himself and demonstrated leadership qualities.
1: Ali Vermaak (Stormers)
Made the most of the extended run to show his worth. Like Fouché, he was a factor in the scrums and industrious in open play. Morgan Naudé was massive for the Pumas and looks to have a big future, while Ntuthuko Mchunu didn’t get much game time but became the talk of the town with his classic try against the Lions.