With plenty of depth in the eighthman position, ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE examines South Africa’s options ahead of the British & Irish Lions series.
The incumbent: Duane Vermeulen
There is little say about Duane Vermeulen that has not already been said: his prowess is self-evident. So much so, in fact, that there is consensus that he remains the first-choice eighthman for the Springboks.
A stellar season during which he captained the Vodacom Bulls to two domestic trophies showed that, at 34 years old, ‘Diesel Duane’ still has plenty left in the tank. Time has clearly done little to diminish his abilities as a thunderous carrier and breakdown maestro.
Beyond his qualities as a player, Vermeulen offers a wealth of leadership. He is Springbok captain Siya Kolisi’s chief confidant and adviser on the pitch. Cut to any footage of a Springbok huddle and there’s a good chance Vermeulen is barking orders. A generational player and a leader of men, the starting jersey is indisputably his.
— Springboks (@Springboks) October 23, 2020
The understudy: Marcell Coetzee
If Vermeulen may rightfully be considered the king of South African eighthmen, then Marcell Coetzee should probably be regarded as his heir apparent.
Coetzee represents the most like-for-like comparison to Duane Vermeulen of any player. There’s little to distinguish the two in either stature or play style. Both are experienced campaigners, characterised by their strong defence, powerful carries and ability to disrupt at the breakdown.
In last year’s PRO14, Coetzee made the most carries of any player; in doing so, he made over 300 metres. A staggering feat given the lack of space afforded to someone in his position. He also effected the third-most turnovers. Mid-way through this year’s season he leads in carries, offloads and tries scored.
Coetzee last played for the Boks in 2019 and would have boarded a plane to the World Cup had it not been for injury. It is clear that he is in Rassie Erasmus’ plans and has been for a number of years. His return to South Africa should be taken as a signal of intent.
One point of difference is Coetzee’s versatility. His ability to excel in any position in the back row provides good reason to expect him to fulfil a similar role to that of Francois Louw in the ‘Bomb Squad’.
— Official Blue Bulls (@BlueBullsRugby) December 28, 2020
The Maverick: Sikhumbuzo Notshe
The renaissance man, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, has revived his Springbok career with a move to the Sharks. Along with Vermeulen, he has been the standout eighthman on the domestic scene over the last year.
Notshe is a maverick; he does not conform to the expectations of how a traditional Springbok eighthman ought to play. At just over 100kg he is easily 15kg lighter than any other name on this list. He’s faster, too. And has footwork to boot.
There are shades of former Springbok captain Warren Whiteley in the way that Notshe plays his rugby. He’s found a way to overcome a relative lack of size by accentuating his other attributes. Notshe’s pace and footwork have allowed him to be devastating on the counter-attack and his ball skills have made him a invaluable link man between forwards and backs.
The challenge for the Sharks eighthman will be whether he can replicate his ability to create linebreaks at international level where the margins are finer and space is more difficult to come by. Notshe may struggle to exploit gaps in the same way against Test-quality defences, but has certainly done enough to be afforded the opportunity.
The Forgotten Bok: Dan du Preez
‘Out of sight, out of mind’ often seems to be the mantra for South African rugby fans; and no player has suffered more for being outside of the collective consciousness than Dan du Preez.
Du Preez has seemingly fallen out of the Springbok equation despite his vast improvement at Sale. Gone is the cumbersome battering ram of his Sharks days, replaced by something altogether more potent.
By developing his handling skills and vision, Dan du Preez has become a less predictable player on attack whilst retaining all his physical menace (he beat 58 defenders last season). A deft ability to free his hands through contact and offload has created plenty a linebreak in the Premiership.
Another facet of his play indistinguishable from his Sharks days is his work ethic. Du Preez regularly plays the full 80 minutes for Sale, rarely shirks a tackle and is often the first arriving player to clean a ruck. As destructive as he is with ball in hand, it is his capacity to get through a mountain of less eye-catching work which makes him so effective.
If there is an achilles heel to the man who could rival Achilles, it is Du Preez’s ill-discipline. He has a reputation for erring on the wrong side of the law and has already faced a lengthy spell on the sidelines this season. If the four-cap Bok is to add to his tally he must do better.
— Saffas Abroad Rugby 🇿🇦🏉 (@SaffasRugby) February 12, 2021
The Rising Star: Jasper Wiese
Jasper Wiese has experienced a phenomenal introduction to Premiership rugby. He has bossed defences with an ease which at times resembles men-against-boys. Wiese remains the leading forward for metres gained and defenders beaten in the competition this year despite being rested for a round.
His power on attack has been the hallmark feature of his game but less discussed are his robust defensive displays. Wiese is impressively mobile and has used this to great effect on defence to quickly shut down space for opposition attackers.
One area in which Wiese may seek to improve, however, is his work at the breakdown. The Springbok gameplan is reliant on all three loose forwards being able to disrupt opposition rucks to give the rush defence a chance to reset.
While Wiese could not have hoped for a more impactful start to his Premiership career, he will need to prove that he can sustain his early-season form if he is to force himself into the Bok reckoning in time for the Lions.
Jasper Wiese’s introduction to Premiership Rugby after 6️⃣ appearances. pic.twitter.com/duVt2Z1kOW
— Leicester Tigers (@LeicesterTigers) February 10, 2021
It is testimony to the depth of South Africa at eighthman that players such as Juarno Augustus, Jacques Vermeulen, Arno Botha, Junior Pokomela and Jaco Coetzee (among others) are considered outliers for selection.
Each of the aforementioned players possess all the requisite talent and drive for a successful career in international rugby. Such is the present competition, though, that they may not receive an opportunity.