The select few Super Rugby players set to benefit from the pandemic
Both South African and Australian rugby have taken their licks in recent weeks, with the impact on their finances from the Coronavirus outbreak having resulted in multiple players being let go or stood down. In South Africa, a transfer window of sorts was sanctioned by MyPlayers, South African Rugby Employers’ Organisation and SA Rugby Industry, in which players under contract could move abroad should they come to an agreement with their current club or union.
In Australia, the government’s JobKeeper subsidy had been one way in which the Super Rugby franchises were looking to save money during the outbreak, although not all players have been keen to take up the option of a deduction in pay during the period.
With significantly more lucrative contracts on offer in Europe and Japan, it is not too surprising that both nations have had their struggles in retaining players during this period of uncertainty. Given that southern hemisphere rugby has long battled against its wealthier northern rival, the current global pandemic has only heightened the financial disparity between the two hemispheres.
Although not officially confirmed yet, it looks as though the Stormers are set to lose the services of Pieter-Steph du Toit, with the reigning World Rugby Player of the Year having requested a termination of his contract with the Cape Town-based franchise. It is a story that has gone back and forth over the last couple of weeks and fuel was added to the fire when it was reported that Montpellier were interested in the Rugby World Cup-winner.
Cobus Weise is also departing Newlands and it leaves the Stormers with a reasonable hole in their options on the flank. This is the perfect opportunity for Jaco Coetzee to cement himself into the starting XV, with injuries having initially held him back following a stellar career in schoolboy and age-grade rugby. If he can stay fit, he could potentially push his way into Springbok consideration over the remainder of this Rugby World Cup cycle.
An alternative option would be to blood Francke Horn as a flank rather than a No 8, with Juarno Augustus having won himself the eight jersey of late. Horn is an excellent ball-carrier and shone brightly at the U20 level last season before injury derailed his World Rugby U20 Championship campaign. Between Coetzee, Augustus and Horn, the Stormers have versatility and youth in their back row moving forward, although a lack of prototypical height in the group might be a concern. Nevertheless, the current departures will inevitably create opportunities.
At the high-flying Sharks, talented flanker Tyler Paul has opted to leave Durban, with a move to Japan believed to be in the offing. His combination with Sikhumbuzo Notshe and the two Venters, Henco and James, has been key to propelling the Sharks to the top of the South African conference so far this season, although if there is one thing the Sharks do not lack for, it is gifted prospects in the back row.
The first name up will likely be former South Africa U20 captain Phepsi Buthelezi, with the No 8 having been regularly involved in the franchise’s matchday 23s this season. He has the skill set to fit well on the flank, a mobility and work rate to prosper, and has the communication and leadership traits to transition well into the senior environment.
The long-term goal, however, could be to move Buthelezi to his accustomed position at No 8 and have Celimpilo Gumede take up a role on the flank. Gumede is rawer than Buthelezi at this point in his career but he has all the ingredients to emerge into a Super Rugby-calibre option in the back row, with foundations of a strong carrying game, relentlessness in defence and impressive physical gifts already in place.
With the Bulls having used the period to strengthen, rather than let players leave Pretoria, the final South African Super Rugby side is the Lions, who have been particularly hard hit by the outbreak. Not only has the talismanic Malcolm Marx left the franchise, but so have exciting prospects Tyrone Green and Ruan Vermaak, leaving the Lions ailing at hooker, lock and on the wing.
None of these players will be easily replaced in Johannesburg, although their departures do create a somewhat clearer pathway for those eager to follow in their footsteps. It is in this area where South African university rugby arguably separates itself from other nations.
At Wits University, South Africa U20 hooker Dameon Venter is honing and refining his game, after a number of years spent impressing in the Golden Lions’ age-grade sides. He is not quite built in the freakish model of Marx, although he does resemble former Lions hooker Robbie Coetzee in a number of ways. As the likes of Pieter Jansen and Marko Janse van Rensburg jockey to replace Marx in the short-term, opportunity could come calling for Venter at the Lions.
Just a mile or so away from Wits, wing Prince Nkabinde is progressing his rugby career at the University of Johannesburg, again, like Venter, after having impressed at the age-grade level for the Golden Lions. His blend of speed and power makes him an unenviable player for defences to line up opposite against and if he can continue to develop at UJ, he could soon be lining up outside of Wandisile Simelane in a potent and dangerous Lions back line.
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If there had been plans from the Lions management to look at Green as a full-back moving forward, his departure opens the door for former schoolboy sensation Muzi Manyike, who possesses some of the most outrageous feet in South Africa. The Wits prospect has played plenty of his formative rugby at centre and at full-back, something which could help the Lions fill the voids in their back line moving forward.
Lastly we come to the Queensland Reds, who have been forced to stand down locks Izack Rodda and Harry Hockings, as well as utility back Isaac Lucas, after the players opted not to accept the pay deduction that had been offered to them as part of the Australian government’s JobKeeper scheme. It has hit Brad Thorn’s side particularly keenly in the engine room.
Lukhan Salakaia-Loto will likely relinquish his spot on the blindside to move back to second row and partner Angus Blyth in the starting XV, though it leaves the Brisbane-based side dangerously short at the position. The door could be opened for the powerful and dynamic Tuiana Tali Tualima, though the Brisbane City forward is more suited to the back row at this level. Another option would be for an impromptu move to lock for No 8 Harry Wilson, who has been one of the stars of the Australia U20 team in recent seasons.
This is unlikely to be the last of the player departures this year, as rugby clubs and unions in both hemispheres begin to tighten their belts, though at least for some this spells a period of opportunity.
As rugby slowly begins to return to play, new heroes are set to come to the fore.
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