The Stormers and Sharks will have consider their midfield options after Wandisile Simelane’s decision to commit to the Lions, writes DYLAN JACK.
The transfer saga involving one of South African rugby’s most promising talents came to an end on Thursday as – through a clause in Simelane’s contract – the Lions were able to match Western Province’s offer for the 22-year-old and further retain him after he signed a two-year deal with the club.
It leaves both the Sharks and Stormers in an interesting position as both were thought to be close to securing Simlane’s services over the recent weeks.
The Sharks have lost Springbok centre Andre Esterhuizen to English Premiership side Harlequins and were understandably keen to get Simelane in as a replacement. That could have brought about a change in captain Lukhanyo Am’s role in the starting lineup.
Am has been predominantly used at outside centre during his time at the Sharks, but could have shifted into the No 12 jersey to allow Simelane to start in his favoured position.
There is a line of thinking that this could have benefited both players. Although he may not have brought the same gainline dominance that Esterhuizen had in the initial carry, there are many who reckon that Am would bring a creative dimension into the inside centre channel if he was to play there on a regular basis. Simelane, meanwhile, could have felt the freedom to express himself outside a vastly experienced player.
The Sharks do have a like-for-like Esterhuizen replacement in Marius Louw. The 24-year-old began his career as a flank and at 95kg would bring a similar brute force at inside centre.
Then there is former Junior Springbok captain Jeremy Ward, who has already gained a reputation as a hard-hitter on defence, but also has the skill that would make him more adept in the No 13 jersey. A positional switch for Am could still happen if the Sharks were to back Ward at outside centre.
The Stormers will also be counting themselves disappointed after coming so close to signing Simelane. It was reported that the Western Cape was Simelane’s preferred destination, before the move was scuppered by the clause in his contract.
The clear idea was to reunite Simelane with his former Junior Springbok midfield partner Rikus Pretorius – who is a highly promising player himself. However, the Stormers will now need to look within to find someone to play alongside Pretorius.
As it happens, they do already someone talented enough to start at 13 as a long-term option. Dan du Plessis has fallen off the radar somewhat after suffering multiple knee injuries but has been back to full fitness since the beginning of March.
Stormers coach John Dobson has already hinted at the possibility of playing Pretorius and Du Plessis as a combination sometime this year.
‘We all know Dan. If he can stay fit, then he’ll become a Springbok,’ Dobson said in April. ‘I’ve got no doubt that he’s one of South Africa’s best centres. We have to give him a chance!’
And what of Simelane himself? Of course, one hopes that bridges have not been burned by his attempt to leave the club and that this can be a fresh start between the two parties.
Simelane has clearly felt that he has not been backed enough in his favoured position since making his senior debut in 2018. Now that he has signed a two-year extension, all he can do is play to his best and give his all on the field.
Someone who knows Simelane fairly well is his Jeppe coach Brendan Gittins – who told SARugbymag.co.za that if the Lions will reap the rewards if they manage to get Simelane settled again.
‘If he feels he is backed, he is a match-winner,’ Gittins says. ‘If you can get him in the right head-space, there are not many guys who are as good as him. I think he wants it so badly, he wants to make his mark on rugby so badly that I think the people advising him are going to push him to get over this. I can only hope that he sees this as a sign of backing and I think with that backing he is going to flourish.’
The Lions have won the fight by retaining Simelane’s services, but they still have work to do if they want to get the best out him. It is clear that if Simelane feels like he is wanted and feels that he has the coach’s faith, he will regain his confidence and show on the field why he warranted such interest.
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