Bulls and Sharks lead recruitment drive after poor Champions Cup and URC results
This is a crucial period for all the franchises, which will be looking to improve on largely disappointing Champions Cup and URC showings.
The South African rugby community is abuzz with transfer news as the franchises – particularly those with the biggest financial clout – move to bolster their squads ahead of another long and demanding season.
The present South African season still has a couple of weeks to run, with the Currie Cup final on 24 June. Yet this is a crucial period for all the franchises, who will be looking to improve on largely disappointing Champions Cup and URC campaigns. A number of major signings have already been confirmed, and more are expected ahead of the 2023-24 season, which will officially start on 1 July.
The call for an increase in the salary cap has been heard, with MyPlayers agreeing to raise the spending limit for each squad to R85-million. In addition, the player cap has been raised to 57, and franchises will have the freedom to contract four “marquee players” outside the salary cap.
Coaches have been calling for bigger squads since SA Rugby moved its teams to the northern hemisphere in 2021. More recently, Stormers coach John Dobson spoke of the need for more quality players in a squad, given the demands of three tournaments staged across two hemispheres.
Shortly after losing playoff fixtures in the Champions Cup and URC, Bulls director of rugby Jake White admitted that his squad lacked depth as well as X-factor, and that recruitment would improve the franchise’s chances of success in 2023-24.
The Sharks fared even worse than the Bulls, with their inconsistent showings in the URC costing them a place in the next instalment of the Champions Cup. Significant changes have been made to the coaching and playing structures, and the team will be under pressure to improve over the next 12 months.
Coaches key to Sharks’ turnaround
The Sharks have made a series of ambitious statements in recent years. When MVM, a US-based consortium, acquired a controlling stake in the franchise in early 2021, Sharks CEO Ed Coetzee claimed that the team had the potential to become South African rugby’s answer to Liverpool or Manchester United.
In the ensuing two years, the Sharks signed a host of world-class players, including World Cup winners Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth and Bongi Mbonambi. The recruitment drive did little to boost results, though – and ultimately the loss of a place at the Champions Cup table is a major blow.
Perhaps the changes to the coaching structures, as well as a few key player signings, will have the desired effect. Last November, Sharks coach Sean Everitt stepped down after the team suffered a historic loss to Cardiff. Since then, former Blitzboks coach Neil Powell has assumed control as director of rugby. More recently, the vastly experienced John Plumtree has signed on as head coach.
The Sharks have said farewell to several players with international experience. Springbok captain Siya Kolisi (who is off to Racing 92 in France) and Thomas du Toit (Bath) were part of the Sharks leadership group, and key cogs in the forward machine. Australian centre Ben Tapuai has also moved on.
Bok props Vincent Koch (who recently completed a stint at Stade Français) and Coenie Oosthuizen (Sale Sharks) will supplement a front row that already features Mbonambi and Ox Nché. Clearly the Sharks have decided to invest in top players who can enhance the side’s scrum and forward play. The downside is that Koch and a large number of current Boks will be unavailable to the Sharks before and during Rugby World Cup 2023. It will be interesting to see how the new coaches navigate the early stages of the URC in October, and possibly the initial rounds of the Champions Cup in December, without so many important players.
Revamping the Bulls pack
The Bulls are set to lose Bok stalwarts Morné Steyn and Bismarck du Plessis to retirement, while the troubled Sbu Nkosi’s future with the franchise appears uncertain.
Tighthead Wilco Louw returns to South Africa after a sojourn with Harlequins, and former Bulls flanker Jannes Kirsten is back after a successful stint with Exeter Chiefs – who won the Champions Cup as well as the English Premiership in 2020.
The pair should lift the Bulls in key areas, although it remains to be seen if two major forward signings will be enough for a team with grand ambitions.
More backs are set to join the Bulls, even though stars such as Kurt-Lee Arendse, Johan Goosen and Canan Moodie are on their books. Flyhalf Jaco van der Walt – who has been capped by Scotland – joins the Bulls from Edinburgh, and former Stormers winger Sergeal Petersen comes in after a season in Japan. Henry Immelman – also from Edinburgh – will join a growing utility back contingent.
Haves and have-nots
It’s unclear whether the Lions and Stormers will take advantage of the salary cap adjustments and also bolster their squads.
The Lions finished ninth in the URC standings – an improvement on their 12th-place ranking in 2021-22. Few will expect them to push for a playoff place in the next URC, and ultimately promotion to the Champions Cup, in the near future.
The franchise has lost a large number of star players in recent years. Despite a healthy contingent of young stars, they still don’t have the experience or the star quality to challenge the better teams consistently.
The Stormers continue to push for an equity deal that will allow them to compete with the likes of the Bulls and Sharks – at least as far as squad-building is concerned.
The loss of captain Steven Kitshoff (Ulster) may be felt, even though the franchise has signed Lizo Gqoboka (Bulls) and Sti Sithole (Lions) ahead of next season. A move to bring Cheslin Kolbe back to Cape Town proved unsuccessful. According to Dobson, the Cape franchise couldn’t afford to pay “the equivalent of Lesotho’s GDP” to secure the Bok winger’s services. At this stage, the union remains in administration.
Nevertheless, Stormers remain in the market for outside backs. Seabelo Senatla injured his arm in a car crash recently, and his return date is uncertain.
It’s hoped that Bok fullback Warrick Gelant – who moved to Racing 92 after winning the URC with the Stormers in 2022 – may return ahead of next season. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.