If you happen to be a Sharks fan, it would be difficult to look at this crop of South African U20s and not be excited about the future of your franchise, with scrum-half Jaden Hendrikse catching the eye in particular.
It’s not that it is a particularly sensational group for South Africa overall, although performances have been solid so far in Argentina, it’s that it is built around a core of Sharks players.
Beyond Hendrikse, there is another scrum-half in the form of Sanele Nohamba, the back row pairing of Phendulani Buthelezi and Celimpilo Gumede, and lock JJ van der Mescht, with all five having played pivotal roles over the opening two games.
Nohamba has provided a very signficant injection of impetus replacing Hendrikse, Buthelezi’s physicality in defence has been notable and van der Mescht showed impressive conditioning and work rate for a second row in the opener against Scotland. Hooker Fezokuhle Mbatha, wing Caleb Dingaan and flanker Dylan Richardson, all affiliated with the Cell C Sharks, have also played their parts in the two victories.
In Hendrikse, however, the Sharks may have found the long-term replacement for Cobus Reinach, who has enjoyed such success with Northampton Saints since making the move to England in 2017.
The former Glenwood High School pupil has consistently impressed for the Junior Springboks this year, not only in Argentina at the Championship, but also in South Africa’s warm-up matches, initially on their UK tour and he then followed it up in the triangular series against Argentina, Georgia and Namibia.
It’s not just the Sharks connection that Hendrikse shares with Reinach, as he is similarly electric around the fringes and more than capable of turning any gaps or chinks in a team’s fringe defence into a big gain for his side. This is a trait he shares in abundance with international teammate Nohamba, too.
His current role as the Junior Springboks’ starting nine, ahead of Nohamba, comes down to the other skills he possesses, with his control of tempo, distribution off both hands and kicking at goal all also proving to be crucial to South Africa’s 100% start to the tournament. France have had a bit of a monopoly on the real top echelon of scrum-halves coming through the pathways over the last few years, but Hendrikse is in that same conversation.
His box-kicking and tackling haven’t been overly tested so far this tournament and that’s something that is likely to change when South Africa face New Zealand in the final game of their group stage next week. With 10 points already on the board, Hendrikse and South Africa are in a solid position to qualify for the semi-finals, although their place is not yet guaranteed.
Away from the U20s, Hendrikse and co’s fortunes at club level could be about to look up also, with the Sharks set to lose a host of players to Europe and Japan later this year. The likes of Akker van der Merwe, Robert du Preez and Coenie Oosthuizen are off and it could well signal a rebuilding period in Durban, creating opportunities for this cadre of promising talent.
Throw into the mix the upcoming changes to the contracting model in South African rugby, which should make it more difficult for one or two provinces to hoard talent and said talent being given incentives through “commitment clauses” to stay in South Africa, and the Sharks look to be in a strong position to at least retain that talent. Whether or not they can make the most of their potential and successfully transition them to the seniors and Super Rugby remains to be seen, but there is at least cause for optimism on the east coast.
Watch: Rugby Explorer – South Africa
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