Variety is the spice of our South African Team of the Week, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The third round of the Preparation Series got off to an underwhelming start but concluded with two action-packed cliffhangers. The action kicked off with a midweek mauling in Gqeberha, where Griquas ended their 13-match losing streak when they shutout the Eastern Province Elephants 43-0 on Tuesday.
Fellow minnows the Pumas also picked up a morale-boosting win when they upset the Cheetahs 22-15 in a scrappy catfight in Nelspruit on Friday afternoon. The standard of play then skyrocketed as the Bulls and Stormers went hammer and tongs in a terrific North-South derby, with Jake White’s charges escaping with a 34-29 win after a dramatic try blunder by Stormers No.8 Juarno Augustus at the death.
Saturday’s encounter between the Lions and Sharks at Ellis Park was equally entertaining and enthralling, with the sides scoring six tries apiece. Like the previous night’s cracker in Pretoria, it went down to the wire with Lions fullback Tiaan Swanepoel slotting a last-gasp penalty to snatch a 43-40 win for the hosts.
As a result, we were able to select one of our most balanced teams in recent times consisting of four Stormers, three players from both the Bulls and Sharks, a pair of Lions and Griquas and a Pumas standout. Selecting a Player of the Week proved to be a particularly challenging task this time around as a handful of stars made strong cases for the honour (numbers 15, 13, 10, 7 and 6).
15: Damian Willemse (Stormers)
A bucking bronco, unburdened by the complexities and limitations of flyhalf play. Was back to his game-breaking best – skilful running, sublime stepping and his playmaking was on point. Great passing, none better than the lightning bolt to Leolin Zas for his first try. Twice pinned the Bulls in their 22 with terrific touch-finders and then forced Madosh Tambwe to take it out with another well-weighted grubber.
14: Werner Kok (Sharks)
Both right-wingers were good at Ellis Park. Ngia Selengbe got off his wing and shrugged off a defender in heavy traffic to draw first blood and made a dominant try-saving tackle on Yaw Penxe. Where Kok consistently outshines others is his extraordinary output and that was the case again here with five runs and 10 tackles, including a vital hit on Courtnall Skosan. His quick reactions set Aphelele Fassi’s long-range try in motion and he got onto the scoresheet himself.
13: Wandisile Simelane (Lions)
A supernova who left defenders and fans spellbound with his exceptional skill and vision, which played a leading role in the Lions’ win. Outstanding option-taking to set up two tries, first timing his pass to Swanepoel to perfection and then creating a clear path to the try line for Vincent Tshituka with an intelligent inside pass. Read play like a book to score a “pickpocket” try and would’ve scored the winner had his legs not betrayed him. Made a telling ball-and-all tackle on Dylan Richardson close to the try line as well.
12: Cornal Hendricks (Bulls)
Both Hendricks and Rikus Potgieter were fantastic and treated fans to an epic positional battle. The latter displayed not only his power but his pace as well when he streaked down the left-wing and fed Zas for his second try. A constant force. Hendricks was the Bulls’ primary ball-carrying back and won out because he created two crucial moments of magic – a classy try-assist for Richard Kriel and a brilliant break that resulted in a yellow card for Ruhan Nel and a penalty try that proved decisive.
11: Leolin Zas (Stormers)
Gave Stedman Gans, who’s by no means a poor defender, the good old “don’t argue” fend-off to score a cracking try and sauntered over for his second moments later after good support play. Marco Jansen van Vuren also got in on the act at Loftus with a terrific try of his own.
10: Eddie Fouché (Pumas)
A polished, match-winning performance by the Pumas pivot five months removed from suffering a dislocated hip in a Super Rugby Unlocked clash against the Stormers. Scored all 22 of his team’s points and pulled the strings with aplomb. Became the first victim of the shot clock but was otherwise flawless off the tee, slotting kicks from everywhere. Pinpoint chip for Sebastian de Klerk was the spark the hosts needed, which he rounded off himself to regain the lead for the Pumas in the 71st minute.
9: Paul de Wet (Stormers)
A statement game by the rookie Stormers scrumhalf. The Cape side played with a notable spring in their step and De Wet was a key driver of that up-tempo surge that overwhelmed the Bulls for much of the 60-odd minutes he was on the field. Quick, crisp, probing and won a vital breakdown turnover on his 5m line as well.
8: Carl Els (Griquas)
Griquas’ juggernaut on the night. His work rate was world-class and his physicality unmatched. Beastly in general play and at the breakdown, where he won a turnover in each half. A monster defensive shift saw him make a match-high 16 hits, while he also carried the ball on six occasions. Pity he squandered a try as it would’ve been well-deserved. Same can be said for poor Augustus.
7: Vincent Tshituka (Lions)
Cue this tape as a showcase of what a hybrid athlete the Lions loose forward is. World-class at the breakdown – where he won a penalty early on and a vital one inside his 22 in the 76th minute – has the speed of a backline player – cantering in his team’s third try – and was a titan on defence – making a vital tackle on a flying Kok near the hour-mark, smashed leviathan Le Roux Roets and blanketed Sikhumbuzo Notshe. Made a team-high 11 carries and 18 tackles in all.
6: Marco van Staden (Bulls) – Player of the Week
Fresh off confirming he’ll be making a big-money move to Leicester Tigers in June, he gave every ounce of himself (15 carries and 13 tackles) to help kick-start a fantastic fightback. That’s character…the mark of a consummate professional. Sensational second-half, in particular, winning back-to-back turnovers in his 22 in the third quarter and drove within a metre from the try line with one of his determined charges that allowed Ruan Nortje to score a pivotal pick-and-go try.
5: Ruan Nortje (Bulls)
Despite conceding a yellow card late in the game, Nortje was the leading No.5 lock of the round as he put it all together better than his competition. He ran the lineout like clockwork, directed the driving mauls, made eight strong carries, including scoring the above-mentioned try from close range that reduced the Stormers’ lead to 26-24 with 10 minutes to go, and made six tackles.
4: Salmaan Moerat (Stormers)
Showed what the honour of captaining the Stormers meant to him with a special ironman effort. Leading from the front, he made a whopping 22 tackles. As tough as he was tireless, his physicality at the gain line and rucks and mauls was immense and inspired the men around him. Good in the lineouts and made some strong carries.
3: Tijde Visser (Griquas)
The Kearsney College product put the hurt on the Elephants at scrum time, winning two penalties in the set-piece, and threw his weight around impressively in open play, making 10 tackles. Strong showing by the promising 25-year-old Griquas tighthead.
2: Dylan Richardson (Sharks)
Richardson’s not a hooker, but because the natural loose forward has such explosive power and pace, he makes up for his lack of positional fundamentals with great general play. This performance was a prime example. Cost his team a try with a dreadful overthrow but more than made up for it by scoring two tries and setting up fellow super-sub Ntuthuko Mchunu’s classic with a perfectly-timed pass.
1: Ntuthuko Mchunu (Sharks)
His barnstorming try for the ages from 52 metres out alone was enough for him to storm into our side but the fact that he’d powered over for a try minutes prior after he’d coughed up a certain score, showed the mental strength of the physical freak. The rampaging rookie also went tit-for-tat with the legendary Jannie du Plessis at scrum time.