Feature: Saffas abroad who starred in 2020

SA Rugby magazine selects a team of overseas-based South Africans who impressed in 2020.

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15 Willie le Roux (Toyota Verblitz)
Le Roux is one of a host of Japan-based South Africans who were able to play only a handful of games before the 2020 Top League season was suspended in February and cancelled in March. Nevertheless, the Springbok fullback made the most of his game time and was omnipresent at fullback for Toyota Verblitz, impressing as the team’s creative force. With the Top League set to get underway again in January, the Springbok coaches will be hoping Le Roux can quickly find his form again, especially given the long-term knee injury to Warrick Gelant.

Honourable mentions: Dillyn Leyds (La Rochelle) *Leyds has predominantly played on the wing, but is more than comfortable at fullback

14 Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse)

Who else? Kolbe’s form in 2020 has shown why he has to be considered not only one of the deadliest wings in the world, but one of the best players. Despite contending with the disruptions of both the Covid-19 pandemic and a couple of injuries, Kolbe has put his head down and got on with it. The 26-year-old even demonstrated his versatility in February, when he started at flyhalf for Toulouse and memorably slotted a 50-metre penalty attempt. He remains one of the Springboks’ most important players going into next year’s British & Irish Lions series.

Honourable mentions: Wes Goosen (Hurricanes)

13 Rohan Janse van Rensburg (Sale Sharks)

Yes, he is technically out of position as he has played most of his rugby at inside centre for the Sale Sharks, but Janse van Rensburg’s form has been too good to leave out of the team. Destructive is possibly the best way to describe the 26-year-old’s performances in 2020, given that he beat 60 defenders in 15 games in 2019-20, an average of four per game. Janse van Rensburg has rightfully earned calls to see him add to his solitary Test cap for the Springboks.
Honourable mentions: Francois Venter (Worcester Warriors), Nico Lee (Brive)

12 Damian de Allende (Panasonic Wild Knights/Munster)

Having started the year solidly with the Wild Knights in Japan, De Allende took the opportunity to move to Ireland with Munster during the break in the season. Upon his arrival, the 29-year-old started all three remaining games of the 2019-20 season as Munster finished in the semi-finals. Aside from his obvious ability in the carry, De Allende has impressed with his work rate and his counter-rucking ability in particular. He remains the Springboks’ best option at inside centre.

Honourable mentions: Brad Barritt (Saracens), Jan Serfontein (Montpellier)

11 Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh & Scotland)

While he has been in impressive form for Edinburgh for the last couple of seasons, Van der Merwe had a breakthrough year in 2020.The 25-year-old South African player scored seven tries in Pro14 until Edinburgh were beaten in the 2019-20 semi-finals by Ulster, and then went on to make his Test debut for Scotland in the final round of the Six Nations, having qualified on the residency rule. Van der Merwe marked his first Test start in the Autumn Nations Cup with a try and would score again in the third-fourth playoff against Ireland. While Van der Merwe was robbed of an opportunity to face South Africa in the June internationals, if he continues his form, he could be facing his nation of birth in the Lions’ red jersey in 2021.

Honourable mentions: Kobus van Wyk (Hurricanes and Leicester Tigers), Louis Ludik (Ulster)

10 Jaco van der Walt (Edinburgh & Scotland)

Another who made his Test debut in 2020, Van der Walt was called into Scotland’s squad after injuries to Finn Russell and Adam Hastings and started against Ireland in the Nations Cup, picking 11 points through a conversion and three penalties. The 26-year-old, who moved to Edinburgh from the Lions in 2017, has been very consistent in the 2019-20 season, scoring 86 points to finish as the season’s fifth-highest points scorer. Given the depth that the British & Irish Lions will have at flyhalf, it’s unlikely that Van der Walt will be involved in next year’s tour, but he has still been the pick of overseas South African playmakers in 2020.

Honourable mentions: Garth April (Sunwolves/Shimizu Blue Sharks), Handre Pollard (Montpellier), Robert du Preez (Sale Sharks)

9 Cobus Reinach (Northampton Saints/Montpellier)

Faf de Klerk may have played an influential role in helping Sale Sharks to their first piece of silverware in the Premiership Rugby Cup, but it is Reinach who has arguably been the most consistent of the overseas-based scrumhalves in 2020. Reinach started the year at the Northampton Saints, where he has established himself as one of the most dangerous and highly regarded players in the Premiership. Strong rumors of a move to Montpellier were confirmed in June. Since making his Top 14 debut, Reinach continued his excellent form, scoring a brace as Montpellier beat Agen in the second round of the 2020-21 season and providing two assists against Brive.

Honourable mentions: Faf de Klerk (Sale Sharks), James Hall (Stade Francais), Francois Hougaard (Worcester Warriors)

8 Marcell Coetzee (Ulster)

A difficult choice between Coetzee and Sale Shark’s Daniel du Preez, who leads the Premiership for offloads in 2019-20, but it’s the Ulsterman who makes it into the team after playing an instrumental role in helping his side into the Pro14 final and European Champions Cup quarter-finals. Coetzee’s outstanding performances in the 2019-20 season – during which he made 506 run metres, 273 carries, 199 tackles and 19 turnovers in 28 appearances – earned him three awards at Ulster’s annual ceremony, while he was also on the shortlist for European Player of the Year. Coetzee has said that he is desperate to make up for missing out on the 2019 World Cup squad (due to injury) by featuring for the Boks in next year’s Lions series and, on current form, it is difficult to see him being left out.

Honourable mentions: Dan du Preez (Sale Sharks), Ruan Ackermann (Gloucester), Jacques du Plessis (Montpellier)

7 Jannes Kirsten (Exeter Chiefs)

Part of a dynamic South African duo at Exeter – together with Jacques Vermeulen – Kirsten played an influential role in helping the the club claim a historic domestic and European double in the 2019-20 season, his first with the club. Once seen as a utility forward at the Bulls, Kirsten has looked far more comfortable at Exeter, where he has mostly played at blindside flank. At 6ft 6 and 111kg, the 25-year-old has a comfortable build for the position, while his abrasive style of play and lineout ability has made him perfectly suited to Exeter’s gameplan.

Honourable mentions: Hanro Liebenberg (Leicester Tigers), Rynhardt Elstadt (Toulouse), Kwagga Smith (Yamaha Jubilo)

6 Jacques Vermeulen (Exeter Chiefs)

Having signed a three-year contract last year, former Sharks flank Vermeulen has reaped the benefits of moving to England’s southwest. The 25-year-old has carved out an identity as an openside flank, starting the overwhelming majority of his appearances in the No 7 jersey. Vermeulen completed 144 of 159 tackles, for a 91% success rate, but he has also made himself a threat at the breakdown, winning 10 turnovers and conceding only three defensive penalties. He is also effective when given licence to roam, with  a total of 111 carries. Vermeulen also beat 16 defenders, made five clean breaks and 44 successful passes last season. Following Francois Louw’s retirement, there is a place in the Springbok squad for an openside flank and Vermeulen should be considered, despite the plethora of local options.

Honourable mentions: Jono Ross (Sale Sharks), Chris Cloete (Munster)

5 Jean-Luc du Preez (Sale Sharks)

A position that many South Africans probably won’t recognise the Du Preez twin in, but Jean-Luc has managed to effectively transition into the second row for the Sale Sharks, playing 15 games at either No 4 or No 5 in the 2019-20 season. The 25-year-old has been excellent in his new role, making 164 tackles and winning five turnovers, while he has not lost any of his exuberance with ball-in-hand, making 59 passes and 14 offloads last season. While he finished the year in his more traditional role at flank, Du Preez has shown an adaptability that could be useful for the Springboks next year.
Honourable mentions: RG Snyman (Honda Heat/Munster), Paul Willemse (Montpellier & France), Stephan Lewies (Harlequins)

4 Eben Etzebeth (Toulon)

Despite making headlines for the wrong reasons last year, Etzebeth has kept his head down and worked incredibly hard for Toulon, having arrived at the French club in December 2019. The Springbok lock had his start to life in France disrupted by  the Covid-19 pandemic and a rib injury, but hit a rich run of form towards the end of the year, which has been enough to earn him a new contract until 2024. The 29-year-old will be the one of the Springboks’ most experienced players next year and will undoubtedly have a role to play during the Lions series.

Honorable mentions: David Ribbans (Northampton Saints), Jean Kleyn (Munster & Ireland)

3 Vincent Koch (Saracens)

Saracens may have been relegated to the English Championship after breaking salary cap rules, but that didn’t seem to affect Koch at all, who continued his excellent form in 2020. Together with England internationals Jamie George and Mako Vunipola, Koch formed part of a dominant Saracens scrum which most impressively dominated Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-finals. Koch’s work rate is also something which has deservedly earned him plaudits, as throughout 2020 he showed an ability to play the full 80 minutes, a rarity among tighthead props. While Frans Malherbe is still the front-runner to start at tighthead for the Springboks, it is an open field as to who supports him on the bench. Much like he did at the 2019 World Cup, Koch looks like he will continue in this role in 2021 and perhaps even push Malherbe for a place in the starting lineup.

Honourable mentions: Wilco Louw (Harlequins), WP Nel (Edinburgh & Scotland)

2 Akker van der Merwe (Sale Sharks)

While his younger brother has starred in Scotland, the older Van der Merwe helped the Sale Sharks push for a place in England’s top four and win the Premiership Cup. The 29-year-old had a good return to form when the Premiership resumed in August and has carried this into the new season, having not missed any of his 26 tackles in Sale’s first three games of 2020-21. Schalk Brits’ retirement means that a place has opened up in the Springbok squad for a third hooker alongside Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi. This will be keenly contested and it remains to be seen whether Van der Merwe can add to the three caps he earned in 2018.

Honourable mentions: Joseph Dweba (Bordeaux), Bismarck du Plessis (Montpellier), Rob Herring (Ulster & Ireland), Malcolm Marx (Shining Arcs)

1 Pierre Schoeman (Edinburgh)

Schoeman has continued to build on his impressive debut season, playing in all 16 of Edinburgh’s Pro14 games as the Scottish club progressed to the semi-finals after finishing top of their conference. The 26-year-old has also taken a step closer towards his dream of playing Test rugby for Scotland after signing a new long-term deal with Edinburgh and could make his debut in the 2021 Six Nations. If he manages to impress, who knows, a place in the British & Irish Lions squad may follow.

Honourable mentions: Oli Kebble (Glasgow Warriors & Scotland), Coenie Oosthuizen (Sale Sharks)

*This feature appeared in the latest SA Rugby magazine, which is now on sale

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Craig Lewis