With the South African sides set to resume their United Rugby Championship campaigns next weekend, Quintin van Jaarsveld picks and tips his cap to each franchise’s most valuable player at this early stage of the new league.
Bulls: Marcell Coetzee
Coetzee, through exceptional determination and hard work, has earned a reputation as one of the most consistently colossal players in the world and he’s only enhanced his status since joining the Bulls last year. His warrior mindset and superhuman work ethic have seen the Bulls skipper set a bar of excellence for his teammates to strive towards.
He’s the leader of the pack on both sides of the ball, spearheading the Pretoria side in carries (48, joint 41st), successful carries (22, joint 36th), offloads (12) and tackles (70, joint 17th). His impressive tackle count is the most by a South African player, along with the Stormers’ Willie Engelbrecht, and his joint third standing in offloads highlights the added value he brings to the table – the ability to turn gain-line success into further momentum.
That the South African teams have only played five matches, two less than most of the other sides, paints a more accurate picture of local stars’ stellar numbers, with marauding machine Coetzee right at the top and only getting started.
For whatever reason, the 30-cap back-rower’s yet to be brought back into the Springbok fold since his brief second stint with the national team before the 2019 World Cup. Surely, at some point, his weekly heroics must lead the talisman to more Test rugby.
Lions: Burger Odendaa
Infamously deemed surplus to requirements by Jake White when the former World Cup-winning Springbok coach assumed the position of Bulls director of rugby in 2020, Odendaal – who’d captained the team up to his release – crossed the Jukskei to the Lions and has never looked back.
This stinging point is apropos for the player and pride of Johannesburg as a whole. The Lions’ den has long been the so-called “land of no-name” players, with the franchise developing their own stars on the one hand and bringing in veterans like Odendaal on the other for balance. For several reasons, they don’t sign superstars like the other local franchises.
Thus, there’s a certain feel-good factor to the way Odendaal has lit it up for the Lions, following the Captain Fantastic lineage at the franchise. He’s led by example with his passion and power in midfield, inspiring his troops in the way he puts his body on the line.
It’s no surprise that he leads the Lions in successful carries (30), clean breaks (4) and defenders beaten (13), posting numbers that put him among the cream of the crop in these categories at 14th, joint 24th and joint 24th respectively. What can’t be measured is his heart and while the underappreciated 28-year-old may never don the green and gold, he’s a helluva performer at this level.
Sharks: Boeta Chamberlain
After a good run of form in the all-important flyhalf role, Curwin Bosch buckled under pressure in the 2020 Currie Cup final and hasn’t been the same since. That opposite number Morne Steyn was in vintage form that day and steered the Bulls to glory exacerbated Bosch’s decider disaster.
Seasoned Lionel Cronje was then brought in and brought a level of stability to the Durban side but when his lone spell ended after the 2021 Currie Cup, Sean Everitt turned to 22-year-old Chamberlain to steer the ship in the unchartered waters of the North.
Plucked out of the shadows and thrust into the spotlight, the rookie has done a remarkable job stepping up to plate and hit it out of the park when he inspired the Sharks to a maiden win over the Ospreys in October. The lasting memories of his Man of the Match performance in the 27-13 victory are the three drop-goals, yet, it was a complete showing that summed up his well-rounded skill set.
He was a confident conductor at the heart of everything good, creating the opening try with a clever grubber, having a hand in the other, winning the kicking battle and being dependable as a backstop under the high ball, an added skill Everitt referenced after another solid outing in the most recent 30-16 triumph over the Bulls.
The Sharks are searching for a franchise flyhalf and fast-starting Chamberlain has displayed exciting potential. With the Sharks having lured Los Pumas pivot, Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, to Durban, Chamberlain has an experienced world-class ten to learn from, which should accelerate his development.
Stormers: Warrick Gelant
Accomplished and creative, Gelant is playing with a chip on his shoulder that has seen him scream out to the Springbok selectors without saying a word. The mercurial fullback’s obsessed with regaining his place in the national side and has made the biggest statement of all in the URC to date. That he’s done so in a blunt backline is even more impressive.
He’s played the role of defibrillator in a comatose back division, doing everything he can to shock the limp collective back to life with his attitude, energy and ingenuity. A one-man army, for the most part, he’s sparked and scored tries and consistently creates other opportunities, both as a strike runner and when slotting in at first receiver.
He’s done so with vision, stellar distribution, probing grubbers and elusive footwork, the latter of which sees him sit joint ninth in defenders beaten (18). His leading role is further highlighted by his backline-high 58 carries, which puts him joint 17th in the league.
The general key to his success as a playmaker has been his offloading game. He’s second only to Connacht’s Monty Ioane with 13 such momentum-building touches. He also leads the Cape franchise in turnovers (5). His efforts didn’t go unnoticed and earned him a place in URC history as the inaugural winner of the league’s Player of the Month award.
A member of the World Cup-winning Springbok squad, his run on the right-wing in the pool clash against Canada is the last of his nine Tests as it stands. He’s been usurped by versatile players like Damian Willemse and Aphelele Fassi, but with his specialist positional play and ability to kick well with both feet, he could rejoin the squad when Willie le Roux’s time is up, or sooner if he continues in this vein.