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Jon Cardinelli

Snyman makes big impact


RG Snyman in SA Rugby magazine RG Snyman in SA Rugby magazine

RG Snyman has all the attributes of the modern-day lock, writes JON CARDINELLI.

You have to see this kid,’ the Affies coaches told Johann van Graan, who at that stage was still on the Bulls management team.

‘He’s tough, runs great lines, and has a lovely pass. Oh, and one more thing: he’s big. Really, really big.’

Van Graan wasn’t immediately impressed. By then, he had already worked with giants like Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield and Danie Rossouw.

The Bulls were one of the most successful franchises on the planet, having claimed three Super Rugby titles in the space of four years.

Big, and even really big players, had featured regularly for the team in that period.

Van Graan, who has since become Munster head coach after assistant- coaching stints with the Bulls (2004-2011) and Springboks (2012-2017), remembers the day he first set eyes on RG Snyman.

‘After training one day, I walked across the road [from Loftus Versfeld to Affies],’ he says. ‘I stopped as soon as I reached the doorway of the 1st XV coach’s office. Inside the room was one of the biggest schoolboys I’d ever seen.’

By then, Rudolph Gerhardus Snyman had already represented the Blue Bulls at the U13 Craven Week and U16 Grant Khomo Week. It was on the back of several strong performances for the Affies 1st XV that he earned selection for the Bulls at the U18 Craven Week and then for SA Schools (in 2013). At that point, Snyman was already 2.05m tall; just 1cm shorter than he is today. 

‘It wasn’t his size alone that made an impression,’ stresses Van Graan. ‘I was helping Affies at that stage and I got a chance to see RG in action on a regular basis. I think about what he’s done for the Bulls in recent times and especially in this year’s win against the Hurricanes. When he was at school, RG was a similar kind of player. He played a lot off No 10 and opposition defenders had a tough time dealing with him.’

Snyman went on to represent the Junior Springboks at the 2015 World Rugby U20 Championship. A year later, he made his Super Rugby debut for the Bulls and played for the South Africa A team in the two-game series against the England Saxons. Van Graan, then a member of the Bok management team, had another opportunity to engage with the promising lock.

‘The Bok coaches would often help the teams at the lower levels in order to share ideas and to see how certain players were coming along,’ Van Graan says. ‘I got a chance to work with the SA U20s and SA A during that period. RG was making good progress.’

Snyman was brought into the senior Bok squad for the 2016 end-of-year tour to Europe. Some may want to forget about the 31-31 draw between the Barbarians and Boks, and indeed the three Tests that followed. For Snyman, however, that opening tour fixture at Wembley marked his first game in a Springbok jersey; the 21-year-old started at No 4.

‘It was raining that day, and it turned out to be a really physical battle,’ remembers Van Graan. ‘RG did well to contest at the lineout and to set the mauls. He showed one or two glimpses of the player he could become when he took the ball to the gainline.

‘He was on the receiving end of a few big hits, though,’ Van Graan adds with a chuckle. ‘It was a good first performance, but it also showed that he still had some growing to do.’

Snyman and another bright second-row talent, Jason Jenkins, stood out for a struggling Bulls side in the 2016 Super Rugby tournament. It didn’t get any easier for the Pretoria-based franchise in 2017, as they suffered historic losses to the Sunwolves and Kings, and finished below the other local franchises in the overall standings.

Snyman ranked sixth in that competition for lineout wins (52 – only Pieter-Steph Toit and Franco Mostert won more lineouts for South African teams), but there were times when his discipline let him down. This was no more apparent when he was sent off for a reckless shoulder charge in the match against the Highlanders, an offence that proved costly in a tight contest and subsequently led to a four-week suspension.

Snyman headed to Japan for a welcome opportunity to play for the Honda Heat after the 2017 Super Rugby tournament.

Upon returning, he spoke about his struggles with the food and the language, but also of the hospitality of the Japanese people.

He appeared to be in a good mental space and genuinely excited about the opportunity to play under former All Blacks coach John Mitchell.  

The Bulls began the 2018 season in the best possible fashion when they beat the Hurricanes 21-19 at Loftus. The hosts were under pressure in the early stages of that fixture – until Snyman broke two tackles and put Lood de Jager away for a try. Afterwards, Mitchell spoke about that Man of the Match performance as if it was a sign of greater things to come.

‘Lood and RG made some good inroads off our No 9 [André Warner],’ said the Bulls coach. ‘They are quite quick and skilful, and they both had to go the distance today [playing all 80 minutes], which is commendable.’

Those words would have resonated with Van Graan and Snyman’s first coaches at Affies. But Van Graan feels that the big lock will have to adapt as opposition teams find ways and means of shutting him down.

‘That was a commanding performance. The challenge, of course, is to maintain that standard week after week. Opposition defences will mark him as a threat after seeing him in action against the Hurricanes. The lines he ran in that game, the timing of his passes … it was just so exciting to see. He needs to keep growing, though, because the opposition is going to try to negate him in future. There will also be less space on offer when he gets to Test level.’

In recent years, New Zealand have set the standard in terms of forward play, not only at the set pieces and rucks, but also around the park. All Blacks locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, and others, have played key roles on attack. According to Van Graan, South Africa boasts a number of forwards who have the skills to make a similar impact at Super Rugby and Test levels.

‘We’ve seen how well Pieter-Steph has done in recent seasons as a lock who roams around the park and contributes as a distributor,’ says Van Graan. ‘Retallick, Whitelock and a lot of the New Zealanders do far more than contribute at the set pieces and in the tight-loose. In South Africa, we’ve seen a lot more of the big boys getting involved in this manner. RG is starting to show he can fulfil the role of the modern lock.

‘He’s one of those locks who has the ability to play No 4 and 5. His lineout calling has improved a great deal over the past few years. He’s very good defensively and we’ve seen what he can do with his carrying and passing game. One thing you look for at this level is decision-making. He’s only 23, but he’s already a good decision-maker. When to take contact, when to pass … these are the small decisions that can make a big difference in terms of the effectiveness of your attack.

‘South Africa is blessed in terms of lock stocks,’ Van Graan continues. ‘RG and JD Schickerling have made a big impact in Super Rugby already [the latter before getting injured], and a guy like [former SA Schools captain] Salmaan Moerat could be a similar force in the years to come. There’s going to be a lot of competition for places, which will be a good thing for South African rugby.’

We could well see Snyman making his first Test appearance later this year if one or more of the regular locks in the squad – Eben Etzebeth, Du Toit, De Jager and Mostert – break down. Going into the 2019 World Cup, Bok coach Rassie Erasmus may favour a player who can offer options at both No 4 and 5. Further down the line, Snyman could be the man who calls the shots at the lineout.

‘The Boks are spoiled for choice at this stage, and perhaps he shouldn’t specialise just yet,’ says Van Graan. ‘That way he can slot in as needed, and be a valuable member to the squad. In the long term, I see him settling at No 5. He has the ability to lead the lineouts and to be an influential decision-maker when he gets the ball in his hands.

‘Fortunately, he is a player who is keen to learn. I saw that when he toured with the Boks in 2016. He picked up a lot from Pieter-Steph in terms of the lineout. He will continue to grow by playing next to Lood at the Bulls. Those two could become a formidable lock pairing for the Bulls and I can see RG playing many Tests for the Boks in future.’

– This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The May issue is on sale 23 April.

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