After another strong performance for Exeter in the Champions Cup, Jannes Kirsten is playing himself into Bok contention, writes ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE.
In just his first year at Exeter Chiefs, former Vodacom Bulls player Jannes Kirsten won both the English Premiership and the European Champions Cup. It was a fairy-tale debut season for the red-headed giant and one that no doubt placed him on the Springbok radar. In his second season, he has shown little sign of slowing down as he continues to chase his Bok dream.
It is clear that Kirsten has benefited tremendously from working with astute coach Rob Baxter in the high-performance environment at Exeter Chiefs. In South Africa, he played the role of utility forward, alternately deployed at lock and across the back row. He struggled to settle on a position and was not starting consistently.
Since transitioning to the south-west of England, however, Kirsten has taken his rugby to the next level. Exeter boast an impressive roster of back-row players including the abrasive Zimbabwean Dave Ewers, European Player of the Year Sam Simmonds and fellow South Africans Jacques Vermeulen and Don Armand. Despite stiff competition, Kirsten has managed to make the No 7 jersey his own.
At 6-foot-6 and 111kg, Kirsten does not fit the typical mould of openside flank. It is only because of his immense work rate and stamina (something obvious even since his Bulls days) that he has excelled here.
The big South African has become the Chiefs’ defensive backbone and his stats attest to this: in his last three outings Kirsten put in a full 80-minute performance and made over ten tackles on each occasion. He was particularly immense around the hard edges in Exeter’s most recent 42-0 hammering of Glasgow, where he made 13 tackles and forced a crucial turnover.
This is not to say that the abrasive opensider is by any means a slouch on attack, either. In the tradition of every South African back-row forward, Kirsten lives for collisions. His physicality in contact means it is rare that he doesn’t breach the gainline and it is why former coaches regularly opted to play him in the more ball-carrying position of blindside flank.
Kirsten’s height also makes him an extra lineout option, which suits Exeter as a side who rely heavily on this facet of their game. In many ways, the Exeter style of rugby is the perfect preparation for a career in the green and gold – both teams prioritise miserly defence and set-piece dominance as the keys to success. It says something then that Kirsten has so excelled within this structure.
While captain Siya Kolisi is obviously first pick at openside for any Springbok team, the retirement of Francois Louw has opened the door for his successor. Domestically, Marco van Staden and Dylan Richardson have been the standouts this year and are the most obvious contenders for the throne. However, don’t discount Jannes Kirsten just yet …
The Exeter stalwart made his Springbok ambitions clear (hands off, Eddie!) and with the type of performance he is delivering consistently for the European Champions, it may not be long before he gets his hands on that famous jersey.
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