Despite an uncertain time in the game, the next generation of young stars offer a shining light for the future, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine.
*This article first appeared in the May issue of SA Rugby magazine, which is now on sale.
Aphelele Fassi has produced a series of eye-catching performances for a resurgent Sharks side in 2020. Before the suspension of rugby in March, there was talk of Fassi starting at fullback in the Test series against Scotland and Georgia in July.
SA Rugby magazine understands that director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and head coach Jacques Nienaber have been impressed by the 22-year-old’s progress. Whether the season resumes in July or November, it’s matter of when, rather than if Fassi becomes a Springbok.
The Sharks coaches deserve credit for their management of this important South African asset over the first seven rounds of the 2020 Super Rugby tournament. Last season, Robert du Preez Snr opted to start his son, Rob Jnr, at flyhalf and Curwin Bosch at fullback. This year, new coach Sean Everitt has backed Bosch at No 10 and given Fassi an extended run at 15. His stats after seven rounds highlight his ability to contribute across various departments. His impact on attack, of course, has been impossible to ignore. Fassi has scored three tries and has had two try assists. He’s ranked second in the tournament for running metres (619) and tackle busts (22).
‘I guess it’s down to a combination of things,’ the laid-back player tells SA Rugby magazine when he’s asked for the secret to his success. ‘I worked really hard in the pre-season with the coaches, who felt I would be better suited in this role at fullback. Playing alongside all those Springboks gives me confidence but so too does the backing of the coaches. They give you the freedom to go out and express yourself.
‘Getting a chance to play and start regularly has made a big difference with my development. The more you play, the more you are exposed to that level of competition. I have learned something every game.’
The Sharks have embraced a balanced brand of rugby this season. While they have scored some spectacular tries, the stats show they have kicked more than any other team. Louis Schreuder, Bosch and Fassi have made important contributions in that department.
‘My kicking game has come a long way,’ says Fassi. ‘The coaches have put a lot of work into developing that skill. I’ve also put in the hours on defence. It’s good to see that I’ve made an improvement in both areas.’
It’s not hard to understand why Fassi is on the Bok radar. The man himself is not taking anything for granted, though.
‘Everyone wants to represent their country but not everyone gets that chance,’ he says. ‘You have to work for it. I will be very grateful if it comes my way.’
School: Dale College
Super Rugby debut: 2019
Super Rugby caps: 21
In 2018, South Africa unearthed a rough diamond in Wandisile Simelane. He shone for the SA U20 team at the Junior World Championship that season and went on to make an impact for the Lions at Super Rugby level a year later. Indeed, who could forget his Man of the Match performance against the Jaguares. That showing highlighted Simelane’s aptitude for a career at the highest level.
The Lions have struggled in 2020, however, and were ranked last in the South African conference when the Super Rugby tournament was suspended in March. It’s believed Simelane is still on the national radar, though. He can’t wait for play to resume so that he can show what he can do.
‘What’s made the transition to Super Rugby easier is the way the Lions have encouraged me to play my natural game,’ he says. ‘You need to step up when you get to this level in terms of the pace and physicality but you also need to remember what you as an individual can offer.
‘It’s tough to say this now, because we’re not sure when the Super Rugby tournament will resume but I just want to use any opportunity I have to help the Lions win. If I did get a call-up to be part of a Bok squad, I would grab the chance with both hands.’
Lukhanyo Am and Jesse Kriel have done an outstanding job in the No 13 channel for the Boks over the past few seasons. Who will fill the void, however, if one or both of these experienced players breaks down with injury?
‘You can’t emulate those guys,’ Simelane says respectfully. ‘There’s only one Lukhanyo Am and only one Jesse Kriel. They are the best outside centres in South Africa. What I can do is watch and learn from them, and then implement those lessons into my own game.
‘You have to keep learning because rugby is a game that’s always changing. We saw that at the World Cup last year, where every big game brought a new challenge. Different teams used different gameplans. Some teams used different gameplans for different situations. As an individual player, and especially in that outside centre position, you have to be ready for anything. The faster you learn to adjust, the better off you’ll be.’
Position: Outside centre
School: Jeppe High
Teams: SA Schools, SA U20, Lions
Super Rugby debut: 2019
Super Rugby caps: 11
Jaco Coetzee has been in the Stormers system for four years. This promising loose forward has only enjoyed an extended run in his preferred position over the past few months because of the injury-enforced absence of captain and first-choice openside flank Siya Kolisi
‘The opportunity to start regularly was terrific for my confidence,’ Coetzee says. ‘With every passing week, I could feel myself growing and growing. I will play wherever the coach needs me. When you play at six and eight at this level you do develop a wide range of skills and get the chance to show your versatility. On the other hand, you want to focus on one position. At the start of the season, I was told by John Dobson that I’d have the chance to concentrate on six. That made a big difference to me.’
Kolisi will start at No 6 for the Boks later this year. It remains to be seen who will play understudy to the Bok skipper, though. Francois Louw – who covered openside flank at the 2019 World Cup – announced his international retirement after the tournament in Japan.
Coetzee has shown he has the ability to dominate the gainline, be it on attack or defence. And yet, it’s his timing and decision-making around the breakdown that has set him apart from most of his peers.
‘Playing to the ball is my strength but I’ve worked particularly hard to ensure I can offer value elsewhere – either as a ball-carrier on attack or a momentum-stopper on defence,’ he says.
‘It would be awesome to pull on that green and gold jersey. I’ve been pushing myself over the past few years to get a chance with the Stormers. Now that a few things have changed at the Boks, I have some added motivation to reach the next level.
‘Francois Louw has retired and there will be a gap in that Bok squad. There’s going to be a lot of competition for that spot, though. There are some excellent openside flanks in this country, more so than there were a few years back. It’s going to be a great challenge.’
Position: Openside flank
School: Glenwood High
Teams: SA Schools, WP, Stormers
Super Rugby debut: 2016
Super Rugby caps: 17
Last year, Sanele Nohamba came off the Junior Boks bench to slot a couple of late penalties and clinch a famous win against the New Zealand U20 side. The cameo highlighted the young halfback’s composure and marked him as one for the future.
‘I often practise those scenarios in training,’ Nohamba tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘I tell myself, “OK, there are a few minutes left and you have to kick this to win the game”. When the moment arrived last year, though, I was nervous. I had to tell myself to remember the process and my preparation. I took a lot of confidence from that performance.’
Nohamba received a call-up to the Sharks Super Rugby side this year. The opening game against the Bulls was in the balance until Andre Esterhuizen bulldozed his way through a couple of defenders and found Nohamba with an inspired pass. The replacement scrumhalf had men on his outside, but was quick to identify the space and ultimately the try-scoring opportunity. A star was born.
‘I have to give credit to the forwards for getting us into that position and to Andre for setting it up. To score on my Super Rugby debut … I don’t have words to describe the feeling,’ he says.
‘There’s a great vibe off the field and we really care about one another at the Sharks. I suppose that helps with how you perform on the field too. What I can say is we back each other wholeheartedly.’
Nohamba’s composure was put to the test again when the Sharks suffered a series of setbacks in the game against the Hurricanes in Wellington. Starting flyhalf Boeta Chamberlain broke down and Nohamba – the only halfback on the bench – was forced to spend most of the game at No 10.
‘I’d played flyhalf at school so it’s not like I wasn’t equipped to do the job,’ he says. ‘I had some experienced guys around me and that helped me settle. It was a tough game in terms of injuries but everyone adopted an attitude of “Let’s get on with it.”’
While Nohamba isn’t getting ahead of himself, he’s made significant progress in 2020 and that dream of representing the senior South African team is closer than it was before.
‘Everyone dreams of playing for the Boks. It would mean a lot to my family and perhaps to my teammates too. Without them I wouldn’t have got where I am.
‘I owe so much to the Sharks for giving me my shot. I can’t say whether I will play for the Boks this year. What I can say is I will give everything to my team and play my heart out. Hopefully the rest will take care of itself.’
Teams: SA Schools, SA U20, Sharks
Super Rugby debut: 2020
Super Rugby caps: 6
It’s been nearly two years since a player based at the Cheetahs was selected to represent the Boks. SA Rugby magazine understands that the long drought will come to an end later this season when Joseph Dweba is brought into the mix to bolster the squad’s depth at hooker. He has been knocking on the national door for some time. He was one of the Cheetahs’ standout players in the recent Pro14 campaign, scoring seven tries in 12 matches. His accuracy at the lineout and on defence has not gone unnoticed.
‘There’s nowhere to hide when you’re a tight forward competing regularly in the UK, Ireland and Italy,’ Dweba says. ‘The weather is a challenge but so too is the way those teams approach the battle at the set pieces. I’ve improved my lineout feeds and my ball-carrying a great deal. Like all South Africans who play regularly in Europe, I’ve come home with a new set of skills.’
Bongi Mbonambi will be sidelined for an extended period after sustaining a serious injury at the start of the season. The Boks may begin their Test campaign without two of the three hookers who travelled to last year’s World Cup, as Schalk Brits has retired.
‘There may an opportunity to play for the Boks later this year,’ says Dweba. ‘Having said that, I’m all too aware of the fact there are a lot of players vying for a place in the squad. Apart from Malcolm Marx, there’s Akker van der Merwe at Sale, Kieron van Vuuren at the Sharks, Scarra Ntubeni at the Stormers … the list goes on. I would love to have a crack but I realise that there is still a lot of work to be done before I get a chance.’
School: Hoerskool Florida
Teams: SA Schools, SA U20, Cheetahs
Franchise debut: 2016
Franchise caps (Super Rugby/Pro14): 37