South African-born stars are sprinkled amongst the field of players pursuing Six Nations glory this year, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
It’s commonplace in the modern game to see South African players who either fell through the cracks or couldn’t crack the nod for Springbok selection to set sail and ultimately realise their dream of playing at the highest level.
Eight such mercenaries will run out for their adopted nations in this year’s northern hemisphere showcase, four of whom feature in the colours of Scotland.
We take a look at the elite ex-pats who’ll be in action in the 2023 championship, which gets underway next weekend:
England: David Ribbans
Ribbans missed out on new England coach Steve Borthwick’s original squad last week but was roped in on Tuesday after veteran lock Courtney Lawes was forced to withdraw through injury. Born in Somerset West, he joined Northampton Saints from Western Province in 2017 and has become a centurion at the English club. He made his Test debut against the All Blacks and also tackled the Springboks last November.
France: Paul Willemse
The Pretoria-born behemoth returns with a vengeance having missed five Tests last year because of a knee injury. From teenage prodigy at Monument to Montpellier man-mountain, Willemse’s made a big impression wherever he’s been. The 2.01m, 135kg lock won the Under-20 World Championship with the Junior Springboks on home soil in 2012 and has been a key figure in the French pack since 2019.
Ireland: Rob Herring
Herring was born in the Mother City but started his professional career abroad, where he’s played all of his rugby aside from a two-match spell at Western Province in 2012. The hard-nosed hooker broke in at London Irish in 2009 but it’s at Ulster where he eventually came through as legendary Rory Best’s understudy. The SACS product debuted for Ireland in 2014 and has made 31 appearances for his adopted nation.
Scotland: WP Nel
Like a trusty, good-fashioned John Deere tractor, Nel continues to deliver. Dozens of faster, more modern models have come onto the scene, but most don’t have the consistency of the 36-year-old. Born in Loeriesfontein, it’s fascinating how the former Cheetahs tighthead became a stalwart of Scottish rugby. He’s represented them at two World Cups and reached the 50-Test milestone against the All Blacks at Murrayfield last November.
Scotland: Pierre Schoeman
An absolute tank of a man, Schoeman’s a nightmare to scrum against and with ball in hand. Born in Nelspruit, he’d go on to make a name for himself at Affies and played for the Bulls before signing with Edinburgh in 2018. The Viking-like loosehead had his first taste of Six Nations action last year and enters his second as a calloused international colossus who keeps growing in stature.
Scotland: Kyle Steyn
The first of two backline players on the list, Johannesburg-born Steyn’s renowned for his speed and fleet-footed finishing ability. The wing’s only earned five caps but has already written his name in the history books as the only Scotland player to score four tries in a Test at Murrayfield, achieving the feat against Tonga in 2021. Watch for the former Griquas gem to make something happen whenever he touches the ball.
Scotland: Duhan van der Merwe
The polar opposite of Steyn, Van der Merwe’s a hulking wing who runs over his opponent as much as he does around him. The 1.93m, 106kg George-born giant is an anomaly; his speed is freakish for a man his size which, coupled with his strength and explosiveness, make him a try-scoring titan. The former Junior Springbok launched his Test career by scoring a tournament-leading five tries in the 2021 Six Nations and he’s eager to return to those heights this year.
Wales: Bradley Roberts
Durban-born Roberts displayed plenty of promise at Michaelhouse but with no contracts coming his way, he headed to Wales in 2015 where he had to start from the bottom. The determined hooker ultimately wound up in Ireland with Ulster and made the first of his three Test appearances off the bench against the Springboks in Cardiff in 2021. Now at the Dragons to remain eligible for selection, he’s hungry for more minutes on the international stage.