SA Rugby magazine identifies the back to watch from each Vodacom Super Rugby team.
Sonny Bill Williams struggled for form last year as he endured a number of injuries. However, it is clear his franchise and national team coaches still have faith in the 33-year-old, who at his best can be a true game changer on attack and defence. However, with younger, in-form centres looking for a place in the All Blacks team, the man who turned offloading into an art will want to repay the faith placed in him and remind his critics of his ability.
Tevita Kuridrani was not at his best in 2018. The bulky centre struggled for consistency throughout Super Rugby, prompting several sections of the Australian media and fanbase to call for his exclusion from the Wallabies set-up. He failed to make an appearance against Ireland in June and on his return to the Brumbies sustained a season-ending pectoral injury in their final game. With the World Cup looming large, Kuridrani, often used as a strike runner, will want to be one of the Brumbies’ leading men in 2019.
The Bulls boast plenty of talented backline players, but it’s the prodigiously talented scrumhalf Embrose Papier who will be determined to build on an unforgettable 2018 season. The 21-year-old received the backing of then Bulls coach John Mitchell as one of three young scrumhalves in the squad last year and he grabbed his opportunity with both hands. His potential was also recognised by Bok coach Rassie Erasmus, who drafted him straight into the national set-up before affording the youngster two starts on the end-of-year tour. Papier came of age with composed performances against Scotland and Wales, which will stand him in good stead before the 2019 campaign. He will once again face competition from Ivan van Zyl and André Warner for the Bulls’ No 9 jersey, but can be expected to receive plenty of game time this season.
Anton Lienert-Brown is more than capable of filling the gap left by Charlie Ngatai’s departure. The All Blacks centre has become something of a super-sub, coming off the bench in seven of the 11 Tests he played in 2018. While his linebreaking and distribution skills are impressive, he has also shone on defence, with his quick linespeed shutting down opposition attackers. It’s hard to believe Lienert-Brown is just 23 years old, such is his assurance at the highest level.
A mainstay in the Crusaders midfield, Jack Goodhue followed up his breakthrough 2017 season with an excellent 2018, helping the Crusaders defend their title. However, he will remember 2018 as the year he managed to break into the All Blacks squad and make his Test debut, in the June Test series against France. The centre made six Test starts, slowly proving his worth alongside franchise teammate Ryan Crotty. A deadly finisher with an eye for a gap, Goodhue will be hoping another excellent Super Rugby campaign is enough to seal a place in the All Blacks World Cup squad.
The Highlanders boast a deadly array of finishers in their back three, but it’s one of their stars, Waisake Naholo, who will want to remind the world of his talent after what was, by his standards, a quiet 2018. The flyer started as the first-choice right wing for the All Blacks, but the versatility of Damian McKenzie, Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett saw him fall out of favour. Boasting a record of 41 tries in 55 Super Rugby games, the Fijian-born speedster will hope to regain top form in 2019.
Ngani Laumape scored nine Super Rugby tries in 2018, including four in an outstanding performance against the Blues, and was named the Hurricanes Player of the Year for the second season in a row. The centre’s form over the past two years has seen him earn 10 Test caps, with his debut coming in the series decider against the British & Irish Lions in 2017. While not the biggest midfielder in Super Rugby, Laumape is still a devastating ball-carrier with a low centre of gravity, that has helped him evade tackles throughout his career.
The Jaguares have unearthed another gem of a wing in Bautista Delguy. In 2018, the 21-year-old scored 10 tries in 15 Super Rugby matches, and five in his first nine Tests for Argentina, including one in their win over the Springboks in Mendoza. Delguy is one of the best counter-attackers around, with the ability to dance his way through the best defences, and is an excellent playmaker.
On the back of several potent performances for the Lions in the 2018 Super Rugby tournament, Aphiwe Dyantyi was brought into the Springbok mix as coach Rassie Erasmus looked to harness the 24-year-old’s speed and finishing ability. Dyantyi was backed to start in 13 of the Boks’ 14 Tests, and his talent and contributions were recognised when he claimed the World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year award. Many compared the rookie to Bryan Habana, the most prolific try-scorer in tier-one history with 67 touchdowns. Habana performed consistently over a period of 14 years, though, and it remains to be seen if Dyantyi can replicate the form he showed in his breakout season. While his attacking play has undoubtedly boosted the Lions and the Boks over the past 12 months, he has room to improve on defence and under the high ball. What’s been encouraging to note is the youngster’s attitude and work ethic. There’s good reason to believe that Dyantyi will take his game to the next level in an important year for South African rugby.
After a stint with the Leicester Tigers, Matt Toomua was fast-tracked back into the Wallabies set-up last year despite having not played Super Rugby. It was initially believed a return to the Brumbies was on the cards for 2019, but the 29-year-old was snapped up by the Rebels. A versatile player who can be utilised almost anywhere in the backline, Toomua is set to feature alongside Wallabies Reece Hodge, Marika Koroibete, Quade Cooper, Dane Haylett-Petty and Will Genia.
Having completed high school in 2017, Jordan Petaia was brought into the Reds set-up for the 2018 Super Rugby tournament and called up to the Wallabies squad last November. The teenage wing was set to become the third-youngest Wallaby, but was denied a debut against Italy due to an injury. Fleet of foot, explosive off the mark and with a lethal step, he is being talked about as a next-generation star. With the Reds in need of a new hero and the World Cup just eight months away, Petaia will be determined to prove that the future is now.
S’bu Nkosi enjoyed an unforgettable 2018, the highlight of which was a dream Test debut back in June when he scored two tries as the Springboks claimed a memorable 42-39 comeback victory over England at Ellis Park. The talented 23-year-old remained on the right wing for the next two matches, but on his return to Super Rugby, he suffered an unfortunate ankle injury that ruled him out of action for nearly two months. Nevertheless, Nkosi finished the year with three more starts for the Boks on the right wing, and will be looking to carry that momentum into the 2019 season. The youngster has established himself as one of the most influential wings in South African rugby, with his strength in contact and on defence setting him apart, while he has made improvements to his aerial game.
Damian Willemse troubled the better defensive sides with his speed, stepping ability and distribution last season. On the back of some strong performances for a struggling Stormers side, the 20-year-old received a call-up to join the Boks. Coach Rassie Erasmus compared Willemse to 2007 World Cup winner Frans Steyn, another gifted player who was backed to play for the Boks at a young age. Bok and Stormers captain Siya Kolisi confirmed that Willemse’s mental strength would stand him in good stead at the highest level. The youngster was used at flyhalf and fullback over the course of the Test season – making his first start at No 15 against England at Twickenham. Erasmus has made it clear that he wants Willemse to receive more game time at fullback for the Stormers before the Boks travel to the World Cup. With more time and space to work his magic, Willemse should lend the Stormers plenty of impetus from the back.
A shining light in the Sunwolves’ 2018 Super Rugby campaign, flyhalf Hayden Parker signed on for an extra year. The 28-year-old memorably drop-kicked his side to a win against the Stormers last season and became the highest- scoring New Zealander in a Super Rugby match by helping himself to 36 points in the Sunwolves’ win against the Reds in 2018. Parker, who joined the Japanese franchise after injuries derailed his career with the Highlanders, will again add plenty of experience to the Sunwolves’ backline.
In 2018, Jake Gordon eclipsed Nick Phipps as the Waratahs’ first-choice scrumhalf and while he didn’t set the tournament alight, he didn’t disappoint either. The 25-year-old played 757 minutes in 17 of the Waratahs’ 18 matches. With his crisp passing and strong running and kicking game, Gordon brings unpredictability to the No 9 position. He does have defensive frailties, but the Waratahs conceded 67 tries in 2018, so the same can be said of several of his teammates.
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