The rise of South African centres in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship bodes well for the Springboks, writes DEVIN HERMANUS in SA Rugby magazine.
While Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am reinforce the Springbok backline with a world-class centre combination heading into the 2023 World Cup, the rise of several hot hands promises to keep them on their toes beyond the final of rugby’s showpiece.
From a continuity perspective, an injury to either De Allende or Am would deal a heavy blow to South Africa’s plans to defend their title, but the contingency options are far from sparse.
André Esterhuizen, Damian Willemse and Jesse Kriel are the obvious frontrunners in the event of an emergency, while Frans Steyn knows how to get the job done as he bids to feature at a fourth World Cup in what is likely to be his swansong Test season.
But the coaching team of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have the luxury of being able to consider viable backups from lower down the pecking order where a blend of seasoned veterans and exciting young midfielders have taken centre stage for the four SA teams in the 2022-23 URC.
It has been something of a strange start to life in Pretoria for Wandisile Simelane. When he agreed to move across the Jukskei River from the Lions this season, the assumption was that he would slip straight into the Bulls No 13 jersey, which he claims is his favoured position.
However, director of rugby Jake White, who is no stranger to achieving great success when shifting players to new positions, surprisingly played Simelane among the outside backs in his first few games at Loftus Versfeld.
The 24-year-old made his Bulls debut at fullback against his former team in the opening round of the United Rugby Championship, before being deployed on the left wing against Munster in round five, as White explained the move was part of a plan to improve the former Junior Springbok star’s Test prospects. This was a significant change for Simelane, who has been widely billed as the potential Bok successor to Am.
The Bulls also have great depth in midfield, counting former Lions pair Harold Vorster and Lionel Mapoe, as well as veteran Cornal Hendricks, among their options.
Backed as the first-choice outside centre in 2023, Simelane has shown a game-breaking ability that the Bulls have been looking for in a partner for unsung powerhouse Vorster.
The 29-year-old is an example of White’s astute identification abilities, bringing in experienced players who fit the vision of the style of rugby the Bulls are playing. While Vorster can be physically confrontational at 1.85m and 95kg, his appreciation of space, meshed with a versatile skill set, puts him at the tip of the Bulls spear.
Veterans Mapoe and Hendricks, who can both slot in anywhere in midfield, have also had important roles to play in a marathon season, slipping in and out of the match-day 23 without skipping a beat.
Before his European tour with the South Africa A team, Henco van Wyk emerged as a future Bok and one of the standout talents in the 2022-23 URC, thanks to his explosiveness on attack and uncompromising defence.
The 21-year-old exploded on to the scene and into opposing ball-carriers, his penchant for delivering dominant hits in the backfield adding X factor to the Lions defence. Wearing the No 13 jersey and forming a solid partnership with new signing Marius Louw, Van Wyk helped The Pride win three of their opening five URC matches, their best start to a regional competition in years, and he will look to make a swift return before season’s end after going under the knife for a torn meniscus.
Inside centre Louw spent almost eight years with the Sharks before joining the Lions this season, and has played a vital leadership role in a team filled with youthful energy.
The Joburgers have relied on his breathless work rate and experience as a stand-in captain, while benefiting from his physicality and abrasiveness on attack and defence.
Rohan Janse van Rensburg played one Test for the Springboks in 2016 and this season joined the Sharks on a three-year deal from English Premiership contenders Sale. The blockbuster No 12 made his mark for the Durbanites, scoring four tries in his first 10 appearances of the 2022-23 URC season.
Tipping the scales at a hefty 108kg, Janse van Rensburg’s move abroad meant he fell off the radar in South Africa, but he continued to grow his game overseas before the Sharks’ search for a power-runner to partner Am resulted in the 28-year-old’s return to the Republic.
Plans to launch the midfield combination have been mostly grounded by Am suffering a knee injury and the Boks’ resting protocols, as well as Janse van Rensburg’s early-season suspension, but they have wreaked havoc whenever paired.
Janse van Rensburg has found a capable wingman in fellow Bok Francois Venter, who grabbed a lifeline from the Sharks after he was cut loose when Premiership club the Worcester Warriors were placed into administration.
The 31-year-old Venter, who earned the last of his seven Test caps in December 2017, is a consummate professional with a wealth of experience, and combines a direct and physical style with superb handling and vision.
Not since the Jean de Villiers-Jaque Fourie era have the Stormers had two midfielders complementing each other quite like Dan du Plessis and Ruhan Nel.
Fit and firing on all cylinders after an injury-plagued 2021-22 campaign, Du Plessis stepped out of the shadows to stabilise the backline at inside centre for the reigning URC champions.
The 27-year-old is a bustling midfielder with surprisingly good feet for a man tipping the scales at around 100kg, combining agility with a strong leg drive and a surprising turn of pace.
Following a short spell on the sidelines with injury, Nel made a successful return in December 2022, when he resumed his partnership with Du Plessis.
Since making his Stormers debut in 2019, Nel has grown into one of the most effective outside centres in the country, with his defensive mastery of the No 13 channel earning him plaudits.
Du Plessis and Nel fit like a hand in a glove when it comes to a settled combination in midfield, the former a battering ram on attack to the latter’s smothering and eagle-eyed defence.
And while Du Plessis thrives on challenging defenders at the gainline, his deceptive speed often allows him to burst through arm tackles.
When not marshalling the backline, Nel, too, can exploit space with ball in hand and when the pair link up, something is bound to ignite for the speedsters outside them.
The dynamic duo are backed up by teenage dynamo Suleiman Hartzenberg, who has earned rave reviews in his debut season as an exciting outside back, and capped off a dream 2022 by touring the UK and Ireland with the South Africa A team in November.
The 19-year-old has featured prominently for the Stormers, scoring four tries in his first 10 URC starts.
– This article first appeared in the April 2023 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The May 2023 issue is on sale now.