Seabelo Senatla showed a steely element to his game as the Stormers held out against an Ulster onslaught. It’s an area that will be vital for him to keep developing if he is to fulfil his dream of playing for the Springboks, writes DYLAN JACK.
Senatla’s decision to forgo becoming a Blitzbok great to chase Springbok stardom has long been derided by couch critics. Despite achieving unprecedented success on the sevens circuit, Senatla committed himself fully to fifteens by signing a contract extension with Western Province Rugby last April.
He first started playing for the Stormers in 2014 under Allister Coetzee, but struggled to make the transition due to the limited space and opportunities to run with the ball. He was also severely tested defensively and under the high ball.
However, having managed to get a sustained run in the Stormers team under John Dobson this year, Senatla is starting to look like the real deal.
Not only has there been the flashy play that we have all come to associate with the formers sevens speedster but, more recently, Senatla has also shown that he has a bit of grit to his game.
As the Stormers’ attacking and defensive structures fell apart around him in the second half of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship match against Irish side Ulster, it was Senatla who was constantly working back and making vital tackles, topping his team’s tackle count for the match with 14.
He was even winning defensive turnovers under pressure in his own 22 as Dobson’s pre-planned decision to substitute specialist ball poacher Deon Fourie backfired somewhat.
“He is very tough on defence and he competes,” Dobson emphasised when asked about Senatla post-match. “He is special. It’s a side that I don’t think people out there generally pick up on, is how competitive he is, how physical and tough he is.”
Admittedly, he wasn’t perfect in that match. He did knock the ball on behind his own tryline and his kicking game did leave a bit to be desired.
Having turned 29 years old in February, Senatla is entering the go-big-or-go-home phase of his Springbok ambitions.
However, as Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber revealed earlier this year, it’s the warrior mentality, the willingness to go into those dark places on the field, that could fast-track Senatla into the squad for the upcoming series against Wales.
“When we look at the mindset of a Springbok, we want to see a warrior, we want to see a disciplined player, a player who takes ownership,” Nienaber said when explaining the Springbok selection policy in early February. “We look at their fundamentals. We don’t mix or meddle with their styles or strategies.
“Other than that, does he fit into what we deem to be a good Springbok? What the public sees on a Saturday is probably only the 12th thing that we look at in terms of team selection.”
Senatla certainly has the attitude of a good Springbok. Part of his off time is spent as a non-executive director at the Cape-based Connect Academy, where he also serves as a hands-on mentor to young athletes from underprivileged areas of the Western Cape.
The next step for him, of course, will be to show that he has the consistency to do the dirty work week in and week out. Of the Stormers’ remaining fixtures in the URC, only two – Welsh teams Ospreys and Scarlets – are currently outside the top eight.
The Vodacom Bulls, Glasgow Warriors and table-topping Irish giants Leinster will all provide a stern examination of Senatla’s Test rugby credentials. In those games, the Stormers are unlikely to enjoy the kind of territorial dominance and space to attack they had in the big wins over Zebre and Cardiff.
As he did against Ulster, Senatla will likely be spending a large amount of time fielding kicks, returning kicks and making tackles. If he does that job well and helps the Stormers get as close as possible to a top-four finish, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be considered for higher honours.
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