Sport

LITMUS TEST

Loftus ideals — Pretoria derby gives Bulls, Stormers early chance to shine as Bok coach watches

Loftus ideals — Pretoria derby gives Bulls, Stormers early chance to shine as Bok coach watches
Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu of the Stormers will be among the players to use the platform at Loftus to show why they are ready for the step up. (Photo: Steve Haag Sports / Gallo Images)

For various reasons, several players in these teams are motivated to show Bok coach Rassie Erasmus what they can do.

The South Africa-based Springboks will convene for the first time this year at an alignment camp in Cape Town next month. By coincidence or design – where Rassie Erasmus is involved, it’s usually the latter – it will begin just days after the all-important United Rugby Championship (URC) derby between the Bulls and Stormers at Loftus Versfeld on 2 March.

The announcement of the 43-man squad this past week prompted a reaction in the South African rugby community. Though the bulk of the 2023 World Cup-winning squad was not considered because overseas-based players are unavailable to the Boks outside World Rugby-sanctioned windows, Erasmus has sent a strong message.

The Bok coach has stressed that the make-up of this group is likely to change as the first Test approaches – the season opener against Wales at Twickenham on 22 June was recently confirmed.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Springboks’ busy 2024 schedule completed with confirmation of Wales clash at Twickenham

Perhaps all 16 uncapped players in this group will go on to make their international debut over the course of 2024. Perhaps most of them will continue to wait for their big break, as others – and even the local players who have been omitted from this alignment camp – stake their claim for higher honours.

The north-south derby at Loftus will be particularly interesting in this respect. Of the 39 local players asked to attend the camp – the other four are Japan-based players who are recovering in South Africa from long-term injuries – 12 are from the Bulls and 11 are from the Stormers. No doubt these players will go into this crucial URC clash with additional motivation, as Erasmus and his staff will be watching closely.

World Cup winners such as Willie le Roux, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Canan Moodie and Marco van Staden (Bulls), and Frans Malherbe, Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse (Stormers) will be held to an especially high standard. Others who have been on the fringes for the past few seasons, however, will have a particular point to prove.

Elrigh Louw’s back-row battle against Evan Roos, and Ruan Nortje’s line-out tussle with Salmaan Moerat should be fierce. Props Gerhard Steenekamp and Wilco Louw, who have both represented the Boks before, will try to show why they deserve more opportunities in this four-year Test cycle. Scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies, who played in the 2019 World Cup final but was considered surplus to squad requirements in 2023, is yet another who will be desperate for a big showing.

Bulls Stormers

Mpilo Gumede of the Bulls during their United Rugby Championship match against the Lions at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on 27 January 2024. (Photo: Gordon Arons / Gallo Images)

 Generation next

The next category of players includes those who played for the South Africa A side in 2022 and all who are yet to win a Test cap.

Bulls Johan Grobbelaar and Jan-Hendrik Wessels, as well as Stormers Suleiman Hartzenberg, Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu and André-Hugo Venter, will use the platform at Loftus to show why they are ready for the step up.

With a view to the next four years, Erasmus will be hoping that a few of the newcomers make a statement in the biggest fixture on the South African domestic calendar.

No 8 Cameron Hanekom has been a revelation for the Bulls, as has loose forward Mpilo Gumede. Neethling Fouché has been the form tighthead prop in South Africa – although Wilco Louw warrants special mention here too – whereas lock Ruben van Heerden’s physical contributions have helped the Stormers to claim a series of important wins in the URC and Champions Cup.

Hopes of the excluded

A number of established players who were not included in the initial 43-man squad will come into this fixture with added motivation. Stormers flanker Deon Fourie, one of the heroes of the Boks’ 2023 World Cup campaign, may be inclined to take the recent omission personally.

There’s still no room for the free-styling talents of Warrick Gelant, even though he appears to have found some form in recent weeks. Bulls flank Marcell Coetzee and flyhalf Johan Goosen could also make a case for inclusion – or, at the very least, show the Boks what they’re missing.

Hacjivah Dayimani doesn’t fit into any of the categories, as he is yet to be invited to a Bok training camp. The Stormers loose forward has been one of the best players across the URC as well as the Champions Cup this season, and if he produces another influential performance at Loftus, he may force his way into Test contention.

Rassie Erasmus

Rassie Erasmus before the Springboks’ World Cup final against New Zealand at Stade de France in Paris on 28 October 2023. (Photo: Franco Arland / Getty Images)

Erasmus has been known to change his mind. Roos was left out of an alignment camp squad in 2022, but he went on to play several Tests that season. If Dayimani continues to excel for the Stormers, he may well earn a national call-up at a later stage.

“This bunch of players includes several individuals who have been part of our structures in the last six years,” Erasmus said. “Their experience and familiarity with the way we do things at the Springboks will be invaluable in guiding the younger players, while others have been exposed to it before by representing the South African A team that faced Munster and the Bristol Bears in November 2022.

“There are also a few new players in the mix who have proven their worth at provincial level and we are excited to see them receive this opportunity and get a real feel about what is expected of them at the highest level,” Erasmus said.

The stakes will be particularly high at Loftus, and it’s for this reason that the respective performances of key individuals may influence his Springbok selections down the line. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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