Feature: We pick stars set for a big year

An action-packed year lies ahead. SA Rugby magazine pinpoints several players who could have a 2021 to remember.

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A British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa, an Olympics in Japan, a Women’s World Cup in New Zealand … There’s a lot on the rugby calendar in 2021 and that’s without mentioning all the domestic competitions or the Six Nations.

So we’ve compiled a list of those we think will be making headlines over the next 12 months – from the men’s and women’s games, sevens and fifteens, and even a referee. Not all are household names, but we believe these selected individuals will be worth looking out for this year …

Duhan van der Merwe
We are in that frenzied period when name after name is thrown into the British & Irish Lions hat. So why not throw in the Scotland wing? As Lion No 752 Tommy Bowe tweeted: ‘I think Van der Merwe could be starting 11 for the Lions.’ Two-time Lions captain Sam Warburton listed the wing as a starter at 14 when he picked a touring team he’d like to see play the Springboks after the Autumn Nations Cup. What sets the Edinburgh man apart is his acceleration and power through contact; his ability to thunder on with hands grasping at him. Just making the plane would be a huge achievement, but he now seems to have reached the stage where, whether Edinburgh are on song or fumbling around, his own game is bankably physical and his hunger for work remains undeniable.

Harry Wilson
Wallabies fans have been yearning for a strong, ball-carrying No 8 since the days of Toutai Kefu and in Wilson they may have found just the man. He was a talented cricketer in his youth, but has found his calling in Wallaby gold rather than the baggy green. Dave Rennie gave Wilson his debut at blindside flank in Australia’s first Test of 2020 and named him at No 8 in the following five fixtures. Labelled a ‘potential superstar’ by the Fox Sports commentary team Down Under, the 21-year-old consolidated an impressive Super Rugby AU season for the Reds, in which he made the most tackles (120) and second-most carries (112). His carries tally during the Tri-Nations was 36 – joint second with All Black lock Sam Whitelock. Expect the ‘Rookie of the Year’ to become a permanent fixture in the back row for the Reds and Wallabies.

S’bu Nkosi
South Africa
There were three memorable moments during this season’s new-look domestic competition where the Springbok wing particularly demonstrated his ‘star power’. With the Sharks trailing against Griquas late in the game, Nkosi acrobatically won the ball back directly from the final kick-off, enabling his side to recycle possession before earning a match-winning penalty. A couple of weeks later he repeated the feat, this time collecting the ball from a kick-off to score a stunning solo try against the Pumas. And then, just a few rounds later, he pulled off the same move to make a stunning break against the Lions. This was Nkosi at his best, showcasing pace, skill, determination and athleticism. The 24-year-old is a man on a mission, and clearly on the hunt for a Springbok starting berth.

Will Jordan
New Zealand
When Jordan came off the bench to score two tries to help New Zealand thrash Argentina 38-0 at the end of November, many were left wondering why the All Blacks had not used the youngster more prolifically during the Tri-Nations. The Crusaders star was a standout in last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa, leading the competition in tries (six), clean breaks (15), defenders beaten (39), and metres carried (724), while also featuring in the top 10 in carries, offloads, and points. There’s no doubt that the 22-year-old has a long and illustrious Test career ahead of him, and is certainly one of the players who is quickly becoming a household name in rugby-loving circles.

Marcos Kremer
If Argentina’s historic first victory over New Zealand was built on defence, that defence was built on Kremer. He made an incredible 28 tackles in the 25-15 win, as well as topping the carries with 14, and was central to stifling the All Blacks. Over the course of the Tri-Nations, he made 72 tackles – 26 more than any other player. Quite remarkable figures. Next on the 23-year-old’s agenda is helping Stade Francais challenge for the Top 14 title,  after lifting the Bouclier de Brennus four times in eight seasons in the 2000s they’ve won it only once since 2007. Then he should be on the Test stage once more, tackling opponents to a standstill, as the Pumas aim to improve on last year’s promising foundations.

Marco van Staden
South Africa
While some players have struggled to adapt to the renewed emphasis on the breakdown laws, the Bulls flank has thrived to become a standout performer for the Super Rugby Unlocked champions. As his coach Jake White says: ‘His skills at the breakdown are phenomenal. The way he understands the role and understands the timing of what he does – whether he goes in, or folds around the corner and waits for the next breakdown – he’s getting better and better at that all the time.’ Van Staden, 25, has won three caps for the Springboks and while he may struggle to displace Siya Kolisi from the Bok No 6 jersey, he’ll certainly be in the selection conversation when it comes to the British & Irish Lions series later this year.

Jonny May
He is destined to score beauties, even if the quotes about them are unlikely to impress. ‘I didn’t have enough time to think about it when it is like that, off quick turnover ball,’ May said matter-of-factly about his ludicrous try against Ireland last spring – one of two he scored that day. Catching the ball in his 22, the wing shaped to cut right then quickly stuttered left, bamboozling defender Chris Farrell. Then when free, he chipped over the defence, beat a scuttling Jamison Gibson-Park to the ball, booted it a little further in front and finished off a scorching score. It’s the lines he cuts that stand out. His fluency of running. In the space of a few years, he has made himself a must-pick for his country and he looks certain to tour South Africa with the Lions. May is England’s joint second-highest try-scorer with 31 but has a way to go to hit Rory Underwood’s record 49. You would not bet against him, though …

Wandisile Simelane
South Africa
Call him Mr Dancing Feet. Having settled at the Lions after a lockdown period when it appeared that a move to the Sharks or Western Province could be on the cards, the 22-year-old just got better and better as the domestic season went on. In a memorable clash against the Sharks just before Christmas, he displayed this formidable form once again as he glided past attempted tackles from S’bu Nkosi and Manie Libbok, beat Lukhanyo Am with a devastating step off his left foot before accelerating into space and delivering a perfectly-timed try-scoring pass. Full of smiles and celebratory dance moves, Simelane has been playing with swagger and confidence. As a player of national interest, Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber are sure to also be smiling about the signs of Simelane realising his immense potential.

Johnny Williams
How quickly things can change. This time last year, Williams was taking his first steps back into rugby after being treated for testicular cancer. Now, having swapped Newcastle and the Falcons for Llanelli and the Scarlets, he’s hoping to add to his two Wales caps in 2021. The centre’s debut against Georgia at an empty Parc y Scarlets stadium may have contrasted sharply with the atmosphere at the Wales matches in Cardiff that his father took him to as a child, but the 24-year-old still made his mark. Wales coach Wayne Pivac believes Williams can fulfil a similar role to Hadleigh Parkes in midfield but with ‘a little bit more X factor’. He gets over the advantage line with the ball in hand, is a dominant presence in defence and could become a focal point in Wales’ backline.

Angelo Davids
South Africa
The young Blitzboks star first impressed for Western Province U21 before earning a call-up to the Stormers and WP sides. He was one of several sevens players who took the local competition by storm, displaying a natural feel for the game that belied his small stature. Yet, blessed with blitz pace (if you’ll excuse the pun), Davids is the sort of impact player who understandably views Springbok superstar Cheslin Kolbe as his inspiration, while identifying the iconic Bryan Habana as his ‘first rugby hero’. Davids will have his sights set on featuring for the Blitzboks at the Olympics, but after that it will be interesting to see whether he commits to the 15-man game.

Sam Underhill
When the Lions last toured in 2017, Underhill was making his England Test debut in Argentina. Four years on, the 24-year-old Bath flank is seen as a shoo-in by Sam Warburton to make the squad for South Africa. That’s a significant statement in an area of incredible strength, with six Englishmen alone in serious contention for a back-row place. The competition for places is increasing standards, and Underhill provides club and country with a shedload of work, turnovers and his speciality – dump-truck hits. ‘He makes dominant tackles just about every time,’ says James Hook, a 2009 Lion. A former county shot-putter, Underhill has had his injury issues and will need to be managed carefully. But there’s no doubting his big-game temperament and he would relish a shot at the Springboks this summer.

Marcell Coetzee
South Africa
On Christmas day, the Bulls took to social media to let fans know they should expect the ‘biggest festive gift’. That turned out to be the signing of Bok loose forward Marcell Coetzee, who will add more firepower to a strong pack. After overcoming some injury troubles after  joining Ulster in 2016, Coetzee has made up for lost time over the last couple of seasons, and scooped up three awards at Ulster’s virtual awards ceremony in September. Yet Ulster’s loss is undoubtedly the Bulls’ gain, with Coetzee making no secret of the fact he has his sights set on featuring against the Lions. ‘Ultimately we miss home, the South African culture and way of life – and after five seasons the longing for home has just caught up with us,’ the 29-year-old said.

Max Malins
The sight of Malins straining every fibre as he goes hell for leather with ball in hand is nothing new for Sarries fans. But when he started to do it for Bristol, the on-loan flyhalf-turned-fullback picked up more eyeballs. His Roadrunner act has found a nice fit at the Bears and he also possesses a fine double- pump dummy. He brought the same all-or-nothing running style off the bench for England in the autumn. Malins’ club form may lead to the term ‘Lions bolter’ being applied in the coming months. Even if he doesn’t join national teammates on South African shores, he’ll get more game time for England in July.

Garry Ringrose
Unlucky to miss out on Lions selection in 2017, Ringrose will be firmly in the midfield mix for the tour to South Africa. Gatland’s team will need guile as well as grunt to beat the world champions – and that is what the Leinsterman delivers. Ireland have a wealth of powerful centres– Aki, Farrell, Henshaw, McCloskey – but it’s Ringrose who offers something different, a contrast, the deft hands and gliding runs. That will allow the Lions to run around opponents rather than simply trying to run through them, which is hard to do against a team as physical as the Boks. The 25-year-old, who was voted Ireland’s Players’ Player of the Year in 2020, is also developing his leadership credentials. He led Leinster to their Pro14 triumph last season, while Rory Best believes either Ringrose or James Ryan will be Ireland’s long-term captain after Johnny Sexton.


JC Pretorius
South Africa
JC Pretorius was jolling for the Blitzboks before the sevens series fell victim to the pandemic, but he remains one of the most exciting newcomers on the circuit. The 22-year-old, who featured as a flank when he was making his way through the fifteens scene, is the living embodiment of ‘the fast and the furious’. Besides boasting the prerequisite pace for sevens, Pretorius is also fearless in the physical exchanges, while he aims to imitate the work rate of Springbok XV’s convert Kwagga Smith. ‘JC goes into a game with the same mentality as Kwagga,’ says coach Neil Powell. ‘He is good on the ground, and is physical and confrontational in the tackles. He also steps like Kwagga and shares his ability to spot an opportunity to change a play
from defence to attack.’

Napolioni Bolaca
Asked which Fijian star should light up 2021, sevens commentator Sean Maloney says, ‘Definitely Bolaca’. Giving more detail, England captain Tom Mitchell describes the playmaker as: ‘A classic smaller Fijian with pace and naughtiness. But don’t underestimate his strength.’ As happy to kick as to run, the 24-year-old was the top point-scorer in last season’s truncated World Sevens Series, made the Team of the Year and after day one of the previous tournament, in Vancouver, the Fiji Sun declared it ‘The Bolaca Show’. A breakaway try against France, in which he fended off tacklers and powered under the posts, was held up as the highlight. The points machine said last year: ‘My target is to play at the Tokyo Olympics, And after that, I want to secure a contract overseas so I can earn a living for my family playing the game I love.’

Trael Joass
New Zealand
It’s always interesting to hear who the pros really rate. ‘Trael Joass has been training bloody hard,’ says Andrew Knewstubb, when asked who is in line for a big year of sevens.
‘If he doesn’t get injured, I reckon he’s in for a huge 2021. Our forwards are pretty solid, so it’s hard to break in, but he’s going to give the year a bloody good crack.’ The more casual sevens watcher will have clocked Joass before, without ever noticing. It has become a tradition that whenever he is part of a big win, Kurt Baker strips naked and climbs on to the shoulders of a teammate. After New Zealand’s men won the Sevens World Cup, it was Joass’s shoulders he was on. The forwards’ job is all about providing a platform. Healthy and firing, Joass could be the unsung hero in a formidable front three.

Charlotte Caslick
Caslick could well be the face of the women’s sevens event at the Olympics. When the sevens series was obliterated by Covid, the Olympic champion played in the NRL women’s competition and in just two games for Sydney Roosters, league fans saw how special she is. She left 11 tacklers flailing and made three offloads – more than any teammate. Her time in rugby league was cut short as she sustained two small fractures in her lumbar spine, but she has signed up to be with Australia Sevens as they hunt successive Games golds. Coach John Manenti says: ‘We saw how world class Charlotte is across the codes and it’s a credit to her the way she attacks every opportunity on and off the field.’


Ellie Kildunne
A step and three broken tackles saw Kildunne score the try that would bring England Women within a penalty kick of beating France, which they duly did 25-23 thanks to the boot of Emily Scarratt. And how did the livewire back-three star celebrate? According to teammate Shaunagh Brown, the 21-year-old and prop Detysha Harper put on a karaoke and dance extravaganza in the team bubble. Energy is what the sevens-turned-fifteens star brings. Even when exposed – as she was by Cyrielle Banet in that France Test – she bounces back with renewed power, sometimes in a different direction. Defences in different codes have been humbled. With the World Cup in New Zealand and the Tokyo Olympics the options this year, fans will be doing what so many disappointed defenders have done before: watch her pick her spot.

Babalwa Latsha
South Africa
The Springbok Women’s prop is an inspirational force; there’s no other way to put it. Thanks to her journey from Khayelitsha to being the first contracted fifteens rugby player in Africa, she has made it her purpose to inspire and motivate the youth, while fighting for several other worthy causes. A qualified lawyer, Latsha burst on to the international rugby scene in 2018 when she made her Springbok debut on the European Tour, while also representing the Springbok Women’s Sevens team in the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco. Latsha went on to captain the Springbok Women’s team to a comprehensive series victory in the Rugby Africa Women’s Cup in 2019 – which also served as the qualifier for the 2021 Rugby World Cup – and in
their local Test matches against Spain and Scotland. Latsha’s strong presence in the scrums and in general play attracted interest from Spanish club SD Eibar, and earlier this year she made history by becoming the first professional South African women’s fifteens rugby player. With a few big achievements to her name already, it is no surprise her next target is a spot in the team for the 2021 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

Post by

Craig Lewis