SA Rugby magazine identifies the forward to watch from each Vodacom Super Rugby team.
The Brumbies traditionally boast strong, competitive loose trios and the addition of Pete Samu has boosted their back-row stocks for the 2019 season. The former Crusader is a dynamic player whose pace and power are complemented by his vision and skill execution. The 26-year-old’s career has been hampered by injuries, but he eventually made his Wallabies debut, against Ireland, in June last year. Now that he is based in Australia, you would expect his Test cap tally to increase at a rapid rate, provided he stays fit and in form.
Lood de Jager looked in fine form during the early part of Super Rugby in 2018, before being struck down with a pectoral injury that ruled him out for the remainder of the tournament. The 26-year-old eventually made a return to action for the Boks during the November Tests, and he finished the year with a Man of the Match performance in the Barbarians’ memorable win over Argentina. It was a reminder of the class of De Jager, who would have come into 2019 determined to make up for lost time and secure his place in the Boks’ World Cup squad. After all, it can’t be forgotten that he was named the Bulls’ 2018 Super Rugby Forward of the Year despite missing the second half of the season.
Karl Tu’inukuafe completed a remarkable rise from nightclub bouncer to All Black in 2018 and was a nominee for the World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year award. The 25-year-old mustachioed loosehead prop, who began playing rugby as a way to lose weight, was spotted playing for North Harbour by Chiefs scouts. After an impressive 2018 campaign, Tu’inukuafe could have signed for the Blues, Chiefs or Highlanders before the 2019 season, but his close family ties to Auckland, and Tom Coventry’s appointment as Blues forwards coach lured him home. He is a powerful scrummager and fearless ball-carrier.
Having started 2018 without a contract, prop Angus Ta’avao more than exceeded expectations after being called into the Chiefs squad as injury cover. The former Waratah became an integral part of the team and went on to make his All Blacks debut later in the year. Coach Colin Cooper singled out Ta’avao as one of the hardest-working members of the Chiefs squad. With a pack containing the likes of Brodie Retallick and Nepo Laulala, the Hamilton-based franchise could inflict plenty of damage up front this season.
In what could be his final season in Christchurch, All Blacks captain Kieran Read will be out to leave his mark on Super Rugby. Read, who is expected to move to France after this year’s World Cup, has endured a couple of injury-marred seasons, but at his fittest is one of the best in the game. After a disappointing end to 2018, which saw him struggle against Ireland, the most experienced player in the Crusaders squad will want to make a potential final season of Super Rugby his best one yet.
A cornerstone of the Highlanders pack when fit, Liam Squire has had a tough time with injuries. He has started only 40 of a possible 95 games for franchise and country over the past three years, due mainly to knee, hand and shoulder issues. Dynamic with ball in hand and always keen to use his big frame, the blindside flank is still a favourite of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. If he has a good run of games, 2019 could be a big year for the 27-year-old.
Having fallen down the pecking order of All Blacks openside flanks, the door was opened for Ardie Savea last year by an unfortunate neck injury to Sam Cane. Savea took his chance and displayed the physical defensive edge to his game that the All Blacks coaches wanted. The 25-year-old has signed a new deal with the Canes that will take him to the end of 2019. Now as good at poaching as he is at stepping through tackles, expect Savea to have a big impact on the Hurricanes season.
Jaguares captain Pablo Matera’s experience and leadership skills are invaluable to his team, while his high work rate makes him one of the best loose forwards in Super Rugby. However, the 25-year-old does need to improve his discipline – he conceded 13 penalties in 2018, the second most by a Jaguares player.
Malcolm Marx was the standout performer among the Lions forwards in 2018. The hooker forced more than twice as many penalties at the ruck and maul than the next-best player in the tournament. The Lions boasted the most accurate lineout in the competition, and finished the season with the most tries from first phase. Marx made a big impact with ball in hand too. He was later nominated for the World Rugby Player of the Year award. It will be interesting to see how Marx copes with the additional responsibility this season, now that so many senior forwards have left the Lions. While his lineout throwing was accurate at Super Rugby level, he battled to find his jumpers at times when representing the Boks in the Rugby Championship and on the end-of-year tour to Europe. Marx will need to improve in this area if the Lions – and indeed the Boks – are going to be a factor at the lineout in 2019.
After four years with the Force, Adam Coleman joined the Rebels in 2018 and has made 12 appearances for them, mainly off the bench. He is a great lineout exponent who likes to exert pressure. The departure of the experienced Geoff Parling means Coleman, who is the most senior second rower in the Rebels’ ranks, will have a greater responsibility this year. The 27-year-old can be hot-headed at times and will need to exercise a little more self-discipline and composure.
Caleb Timu’s power-running game makes him a threat to any defence. Timu, who is a Mormon, requested an early release from his contract with rugby league team the Brisbane Broncos because he was required to play on Sundays, and joined the Reds in 2016. A pre-season injury left him in limbo for most of the next two years, during which time he worked as an Uber driver to provide for his family. The 24-year-old, who is studying for a bachelor of commerce degree, will hope to repay coach Brad Thorn’s faith in him this season.
Akker van der Merwe will head into the 2019 season with a point to prove. The explosive hooker featured in three Tests for the Boks last June, but then fell by the wayside. However, the 27-year-old sent out a stark reminder of his class when he produced a couple of standout performances during the 2018 Currie Cup playoffs. He will be more determined than ever to make the Sharks’ No 2 jersey his own and force his way back into Bok reckoning before the World Cup. While Van der Merwe is renowned for his mobility and robust ball carrying, it’s in his primary role at the set pieces where he will be looking to establish real consistency. The former Lions hooker may face some competition from Chiliboy Ralepelle for a starting berth, but all the signs point to what should be a big year for Van der Merwe.
Pieter-Steph du Toit made a big impact at the set pieces and the breakdowns for the Springboks in 2018, whether he wore No 4, 5 or 7 on his back. Last year, plans to start Du Toit at blindside flank for the duration of the Super Rugby season were scuppered after locks Eben Etzebeth and JD Schickerling were ruled out with serious injuries. Now that both are fit, Du Toit may well get the opportunity to be the first-choice No 7 at his franchise. Coach Robbie Fleck will, however, have to manage Du Toit carefully to ensure the player is not physically spent by the time he travels to the World Cup in September. Du Toit was played into the ground by the Stormers last season, and went on to feature in every Test for the Boks.
After a solid debut season for the Sunwolves in 2018, MICHAEL LEITCH will have a big role to play for franchise and country in 2019. The 30-year-old loose forward has never been short of work rate, but will have to stand up as a leader in what could be a defining season for the Sunwolves. Leitch’s ability to force turnovers and his physicality in the tackle have often proved to be his strongest assets, as the Stormers found out last year in Hong Kong. In a year where the spotlight will be firmly fixed on the Sunwolves and their future in the competition, as well as on Japan as hosts of the World Cup, Leitch will have to draw on his years of experience to guide his franchise and national team to new heights.
A succession of injuries scuppered Tolu Latu’s 2018 campaign, but he did come back strongly towards the back end of the season and will be hoping to build on that form in 2019. Latu is the Australian version of Malcolm Marx – all raw power and determination – and with his physical prowess and strength over the ball he acts as a fourth loose forward. However, like Marx, Latu will have to work on his lineout throwing if he wants to start for the Wallabies this year.
Main photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images