The long-awaited return of domestic rugby with Super Rugby Unlocked will give a number of future stars their opportunities to fire, writes DYLAN JACK.
Weekly domestic rugby will return to South Africa for the first time since the regular Super Rugby tournament was halted in mid-March. Since then, New Zealand and Australia have held their own domestic versions of the tournament and it will be South Africa’s turn from this weekend on with Super Rugby Unlocked.
There have already been two weeks of pre-season action with the Super Fan Saturday and the Springbok Showdown, which both showcased the depth of South Africa’s talent by combining Springboks with future stars.
As it is, this theme should continue through this weekend, with a number of young players set to make the step up to the senior team for the likes of the Sharks, Lions, Cheetahs and Vodacom Bulls.
Someone grabbing all the headlines in this regard is Sharks scrumhalf Sanele Nohamba. In the opening match of the tournament the Sharks host the Lions at Kings Park on Friday evening and Nohamba has been backed to start. It is easy to forget that the 21-year-old made his Super Rugby debut only back in January, marking it with a memorable try to seal a win over the Bulls.
Since then, Sharks coach Sean Everitt made a brave call to back his young group of scrumhalves by allowing the more senior Louis Schreuder to cancel his contract for a move to England with the Newcastle Falcons.
Nohamba isn’t exactly being thrown in the deep end, though, as he showed in last weekend’s Showdown that he can cope with the pressures of being a senior scrumhalf.
‘Sanele was a shining light on Saturday afternoon. I was extremely happy for him,’ Everitt said this week. ‘I think the week he had down in Cape Town with the Springboks was really good for him but, most importantly, beneficial to us from a learning point of view.
‘Funnily enough, even at his young and tender age, he brings leadership to the team as well. He knows his role and responsibilities and he is able to conduct the traffic around the back of the scrums, rucks and mauls.’
Nohamaba is not the only young player backed to make an impact for the Sharks this weekend. There are a host of Junior Springboks in the match-day 23, with Phendulani Buthelezi and Dylan Richardson starting, while Celimpilo Gumede, JJ van der Mescht and Thaakir Abrahams are on the bench.
As for the Lions, they have opted for a more experienced starting lineup, but have an exciting bench that could make an impact in the final 20 minutes of the match. Hacjivah Dayimani, Morne van den Berg and Gianni Lombard, who put in a composed performance at fullback for the Springbok Green team, are players to watch in this regard. It remains to be seen whether Wandisile Simelane will play, as he has been named as the 24th player in a 25-man squad.
Meanwhile, the Bulls will get their new era under director of rugby and head coach Jake White officially under way with an intriguing match against Griquas in Pretoria. Unsurprisingly, White opted for continuity from the team that put in an excellent performance in the pre-season win over the Sharks.
That means that Cornal Hendricks continues in his new role at inside centre alongside Stedman Gans in a midfield which offered plenty of pace and power, but also deception, skill and guile against the Sharks. There is also a debut for David Kriel, who has replaced Kurt-Lee Arendse after the Blitzbok player was rested as an injury precaution.
Kriel, whose younger brother Richard has been playing for the Bulls U21 side, joined from Western Province in May and was spoken of by Stormers coach John Dobson as a player with immense potential at centre or fullback. However, he will certainly bring some dynamism and assuredness under the high ball at wing.
The Cheetahs will be looking to put a whirlwind couple of weeks behind them when they begin their campaign against the Pumas in Bloemfontein. Hawies Fourie’s side was handed a hammer blow when SA Rugby confirmed that they would effectively be kicked out of an expanded PRO16 tournament in favour of including the four Super Rugby teams.
While both Fourie and captain Ruan Pienaar have emphasised that their focus will be single-mindedly on the upcoming domestic season, there may be a little part of the Cheetahs that would want to prove SA Rugby made the wrong call.
Four players who were involved with the Springbok Showdown – Frans Steyn, Malcolm Jaer, Junior Pokomela and Luan de Bruin – will start for the Cheetahs this weekend. Jaer looked particularly bright for the victorious Springbok Green team until he was substituted after picking up a knock and the 25-year-old will look to carry that form into his domestic team.
The Pumas and Griquas enter the tournament – which will be their first opportunity to play against full-strength Super Rugby teams – as unknown qualities, given that they have not been able to play this year.
Both teams do have notable players in their respective match-day squads. Griquas will be captained by experienced journeyman flyhalf George Whitehead and will have a Springbok in wing Bjorn Basson among their replacements. However, an eye should be kept on 24-year-old Daniel Kasende, who moved to the Northern Cape after performing well in the Varsity Cup for Wits.
Meanwhile, the Pumas have opted for a blend of youth and experience with lock Le Roux Roets and loose forward Jeandre Rudolph returning to the team from loan stints with the Sharks and Bulls. However, among the debutants will be 22-year-old flank Kwanda Dimaza, who was considered surplus to requirements at the Sharks and will want to prove his quality.
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