Marco van Staden’s consistent form has brought him back into the national conversation, writes MARIETTE ADAMS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
You could make a claim for any number of players to be the standout South African performer in the Covid-19 disrupted 2020-2021 rugby season, throughout Super Rugby, Super Rugby Unlocked and the Currie Cup.
Few other forwards would be a match for Marco van Staden, whose uncomplicated, no-nonsense style has endeared him not just to the Bulls fan base, but to the general public who have been only too keen for a fix of sporting excellence.
In the two local competitions staged after lockdown, Van Staden has certainly been the most consistent, displaying the type of form that alerted the national selectors in 2018, and that would make it difficult for them to ignore him when the Bok squad is finalised for the incoming British & Irish Lions tour.
‘I’m happy with the way I’m playing now but credit has to go the Bulls’ coaching staff for implementing a system that suits my game,’ the soft-spoken Van Staden tells SA Rugby magazine.
‘Obviously it’s a goal for me to get back into that Springbok squad. But I can only control what I do, and what I can control now is to play the best that I can for the Bulls. I can’t control the rest.’
Hot property as he is now though, it’s been well-documented that Van Staden had to fight tooth and nail for his place in the professional game. Having come from a relatively unknown school, Bekker, in the Magaliesberg, and being small in stature, he was on the end of many rejections because he didn’t fit the profile of the classic giant South African loose forward.
A proud farm boy, Van Staden lived up to the Afrikaans saying of ’n boer maak ’n plan. Despite all the dismissals of his dream to be a professional rugby player, he forced his way into the Tuks academy and from there carved a path through the rugby system in Pretoria between 2014 and 2017, the year he eventually made his senior debut for the Bulls. And the rest, as they say, is history.
With three Test caps to his name and a regular spot in the Bulls lineup, he was now a household name, set on winning back his place in the Springbok squad after missing out on selection for the World Cup.
‘When I got released from the squad last year, I was disappointed. It wasn’t my time and I accept that. Hopefully the right time will come. I want to be in the squad and play for the Boks again, but if I’m not picked, that’s OK too. Everything happens for a reason.’
It’s clear Van Staden had set a goal for himself, and coming into 2020 he had set plan in motion to reach that goal. But with the arrival of Jake White at Loftus, Van Staden was at risk of history repeating itself. White’s recruitment drive and ruthless overhaul of the Bulls playing personnel, saw him either import or promote big loose forwards, especially those he can use as enforcers. Yet again, Van Staden didn’t fit the mold.
Many column inches were dedicated to analysing if and how Van Staden would fit into White’s plans. But the man known as ‘Eskom’ – a nickname bestowed on him for his ability to tackle the lights out of opponents – kept his head down and carried on with the job at hand.
Fast forward to the end of the domestic season and Van Staden emerged as one of White’s chief lieutenants. In peak physical condition, Van Staden – previously categorised a flank a who merely plays towards the ball – proved he is an effective fetcher, powerful ball-carrier, excellent support player and defensive maestro rolled into one.
‘I like all the physical aspects of the game, so I like defensive tackling and getting over the ball, carrying the ball, ball-cleaning and stealing the ball,’ Van Staden enthusiastically admits.
‘The things I can still improve on are my accuracy at the breakdown, and my discipline – I sometimes give unnecessary penalties away. One can never be on top of their game – there’s always room for improvement; always room for learning. I can always improve my technique in the way I play. As long as I keep playing, I’ll keep trying to improve, learn more and be better.’
For all his self-professed shortcomings, the 25-year-old’s attributes are a potent mix in the modern game and – as is already the case for the Bulls – he could be invaluable for the Springboks, especially as Francois Louw, who fulfilled a similar role, is no longer available for Test selection.
Inspirational captain Siya Kolisi is the incumbent openside flank, but as an impact player Van Staden could be a game-changing weapon in coach Jacques Nienaber’s armoury.
Although he admits to wanting to play openside for South Africa, Van Staden quickly shoots down any comparisons between him and Louw.
‘I can’t compare to Francois Louw. He’s a wonderful player on his own, I don’t want to compare myself to a great player like him,’ Van Staden says.
‘In terms of the role, openside is my preferred position, but whatever the coaches and the selectors want from me on the field, I’ll do my best to deliver where I can.’
As someone who doubles down as a handyman in his spare time and even makes his own furniture, there can be no doubt that Van Staden will play wherever or do ‘whatever’ is required of him as long as it means he gets to pull that green and gold jersey over his head.
And that kind of dedication – or should that be desperation – from a player of his immense talents bodes well for the future of Bulls and Springbok rugby, and should be worrisome for their opponents.