JON CARDINELLI looks at the big men who could make an impact in the 2014 Vodacom Super Rugby tournament.
VICTOR MATFIELD (BULLS)
Neither the Springboks nor the Bulls have been the same since Matfield retired at the end of 2011. Matfield has dabbled in commentating and coaching over the past two years, but it’s always been a possibility that he would return to bolster the Boks in that No 5 position. The Bulls will benefit from this comeback, given they’ve lost No 5 Juandré Kruger and several other senior players to overseas clubs. Matfield will assume the lineout management responsibilities and use his experience to strengthen the Bulls’ senior core. In his prime, Matfield was one of the best players in the world and the best No 5 the game had seen. He’s older these days, at 36, but Bok coach Heyneke Meyer will be hoping Matfield can replicate the feats of second-rowers Brad Thorn and Simon Shaw, who performed to a world-class standard for their countries at an advanced age. It remains to be seen whether Matfield will recapture his form of old, but his presence will boost the Bulls’ Super Rugby play-off prospects.
ADRIAAN STRAUSS (CHEETAHS)
South Africa’s standout performer in the 2013 competition, Strauss will be determined to produce another string of dominant showings in 2014. At his best, he is a powerful ball-carrier around the fringes, and a deceptively quick runner in open space. His strength on the floor makes him an asset, and while it is often Heinrich Brüssow and Lappies Labuschagne who receive the ball-stealing plaudits, Strauss is right up there with defensive turnovers. This is a big feature of the Cheetahs’ game if you consider how they thrive from broken field and score the bulk of their tries on the counter-attack. The 2013 campaign was monumental in that it saw the Cheetahs qualify for the play-offs for the first time in their history. Strauss deserves recognition for the role he played in propelling the Cheetahs to that milestone, as a player and a leader. What needs to change in 2014, however, is the management of the Cheetahs captain and talisman. Strauss played every game in 2013, and that workload began to take its toll in the latter stages of the competition. If the Cheetahs manage Strauss better, they will increase their chances of performing in the play-offs.
DERICK MINNIE (LIONS)
Minnie, the ultimate underdog, will never play for South Africa, but he has shown in recent seasons that he has the ability to mix it with the best players in Super Rugby. His defence and ball-carrying has come on in recent times, but his primary role as a fetcher is what makes him the Lions’ forward to watch in the Johannesburg franchise’s comeback campaign. It may take the Lions some time to readjust to the top flight after a year in the wilderness, particularly up front. Minnie will depend on the performance of his tight five if he is to get into positions to effect the breakdown steal. He’s developed a reputation for making the turnover at crucial moments in a match, which has led either to the stalling of the opposition’s momentum or a sweeping counter-attack. The Lions will need to produce a strong collective performance if they’re to be competitive in 2014. Wins may be few and far between, but don’t be surprised if those few successes are down to the breakdown brilliance of Minnie.
PIETER-STEPH DU TOIT (SHARKS)
The Sharks boast a number of Springbok heavies in their ranks, with Bismarck du Plessis headlining what is a formidable forward act. The man who may steal the show in the 2014 season is one marked by Heyneke Meyer himself to become one of the great No 5s. Here we are talking about Pieter-Steph du Toit, the lock who made his Test debut in 2013 and was touted by many to eventually fill the shoes of Victor Matfield. Du Toit has been described by his coaches as a physical freak, such is the giant lock’s work rate around the park. Meyer has pushed Du Toit to develop his lineout management skills, and his improvement in this area was evident in the Currie Cup final. Du Toit will hope to carry that form through to the 2014 Super Rugby competition and establish the Sharks’ lineout as one of the best in the tournament. This ambition will not compromise his mobility. Expect him to play a key role with ball in hand.
DUANE VERMEULEN (STORMERS)
There’s a reason Vermeulen is the captain of the Stormers’ defence. The No 8’s size, agility and attitude all make for one uncompromising product at the gainline, and there haven’t been too many occasions over the past 12 months where Vermeulen hasn’t dominated the collisions, be it for the Stormers or Boks. What makes him a leader in this department, however, is his ability to organise his team-mates and ensure the Stormers’ defensive line realigns quickly after every phase. Indeed, the Stormers have been far less effective at the gainline when Vermeulen has been absent due to injury, as was the case for much of the 2013 Super Rugby campaign. The No 8 also provides the Stormers with a good option at the back of the lineout, while his decision-making at the breakdown has led to many successful turnovers. He’s not often celebrated for his attacking play, but is nevertheless capable of some magic touches, as was seen with the pass that led to a try for Bryan Habana in the Boks’ epic battle with the All Blacks at Ellis Park in 2013. The Stormers are fortunate to have some outstanding loose forwards in their squad, but there’s little doubt which one will set the tone in 2014.
Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images