The Bulls and Sharks are long shots to survive the quarter-finals after yet another disappointing Super Rugby season which saw the four South African teams combine for 30 wins in 64 matches.
The dire run of results was made more ignominious by the Jaguares clinching the conference title, and the imminent player Springbok exodus (post-World Cup) and roll out of a plan to shrink the SA player pool, has served up a buffet for pessimists.
However, in spite of the arid landscape and bleak horizon, players continue to blossom and in some cases thrive, serving a reminder that South Africa produces home-grown talent like no other rugby nation.
At the Bulls, Lizo Gqoboka and Cornal Hendricks both made a memorable return to Super Rugby duty. The loosehead prop backed up big shoves with athleticism and workrate in general play, while the former Blitzboks finisher stood out as one of the few local wingers with the chutzpah to take the outside break.
Nestled in a pack of big ball-carriers, and overshadowed by the big-time plays made by Duane Vermeulen, Marco van Staden ended the season as the best specialist deckhand in the country. And only two players made more dominant hits than flex forward Hanro Liebenberg.
Injuries and suspensions opened the door for Mzamo Majola and Kerron van Vuuren to start in Durban and the former KZN high school front-row rivals teamed up to steady the Sharks set piece with a composure that belied their relative inexperience.
Thumper Dan du Preez continued to grow into his role in the vanguard of the Sharks pack, finishing up among Super Rugby’s best in key stats categories, such as offloads and tackle breaks, and scrumhalf Louis Schreuder led the comp in the passing category.
Nobody at the Sharks made bigger strides in 2019 than Curwin Bosch who finally found his pace in the competition, combining SA’s most refined kicking game with a playmaking ability that sparked the attack. And with Bosch at 10, 21-year-old Aphelele Fassi banked the learnings that came from an extended run at the back.
Lions jumper Marvin Orie ranked fourth overall for lineout takes this season, while all-action winger Tyrone Green caught the eye with fearless runs that would go well with Bonnie Tyler’s 1984 hit single, Holding Out For A Hero.
Surplus to the Stormers requirements, Carlu Sadie was loaned to the Lions where he opened the season as the Lions starting tighthead prop and did a fine job of it. Shaun Reynolds had to wait a little longer to cut his teeth in the run-on side and, though he didn’t shoot the lights out, the former Griffons age-group star closed the gap on franchise flyhalf Elton Jantjies.
And Herschel Jantjies and Jaco Coetzee hopped from Currie Cup to the next level with ease, making veteran contributions to the Stormers’ cause. Only three players made a higher volume of accurate passes than the Stormers halfback and Coetzee’s reckless physicality drew loose comparisons to Schalk Burger’s ball-carrying legacy.
Dan du Preez is set to join his brothers at Sale in the future and it remains to be seen how many of the other players mentioned will choose to stick around in 2020 and beyond. But at a time when the majority of the Bok squad is expected to head abroad after the Rugby World Cup, the next men up have this season shown that South Africa may have the talent to fill the void.