The Europe-based Springboks gave the South African coaches and public a timely reminder of their quality and value in the recent Champions Cup Round-of-16, writes Jon Cardinelli.
The Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers have dominated their international opponents on South African soil in recent months. As a result, three of the four franchises are well placed to qualify for the United Rugby Championship quarter-finals, and ultimately next season’s Champions Cup.
If all goes to plan, the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers will make their respective debuts in the Champions Cup later this year. It remains to be seen whether these teams will be ready for the step up in intensity and physicality.
Stacked with Test stars
The Champions Cup features some of the strongest clubs in the world and is stacked with Test stars from all over the planet. It’s been the game’s premier club tournament for the better part of a decade, and the ultimate springboard for international selection.
Indeed, it’s not hard to understand why the Springbok coaches are keeping a close eye on the South Africans competing across Europe. While Jacques Nienaber and company will be monitoring local teams in the URC with interest, they will be viewing the performances in the Champions Cup in a very different light.
There’s been plenty of debate about who should be in the Bok squad for the three-Test series against Wales this July – and many fans have critics have made their arguments based on what they’ve seen in the URC.
This past weekend, all and sundry were given a timely reminder of why some of the World Cup winners and British & Irish Lions slayers are so highly valued by Nienaber and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus.
Lood de Jager and the Du Preez twins excelled in Sale Sharks’ win over Bristol Bears, while Jasper Wiese came off the bench to provide some impetus for Leicester Tigers in their victory over Clermont. Ulster went down to Toulouse, but Duane Vermeulen was one of his side’s standouts at the collisions and mauls.
At a time when fans in South Africa are demanding a loose-forward shake-up – based on Elrigh Louw and Evan Roos’s brilliant showings for the Bulls and Stormers in the URC – the more seasoned Boks are delivering on club rugby’s biggest stage.
Few critics are talking about Rynhardt Elstadt at present, even though he continues to impress for the Champions Cup and Top 14 title-holders. Elstadt was a monster at the gainline against Ulster on Saturday, and completed a whopping 29 tackles.
At Thomond Park, Damian de Allende ran a great supporting line to collect an offload from Simon Zebo, and then finished in spectacular fashion. There were many layers to the Bok centre’s performance against Exeter, though.
De Allende carried strongly to get Munster over the gainline, and made some key turnovers at the breakdown. At one point, Exeter looked to have found space with a well-directed kick, before De Allende swept across and plucked the ball from the air.
De Allende’s try will be replayed again and again over the next few days. His other contributions, however – and how they shaped the final result – should not be forgotten.
Another hulking centre made an impression in the recent Champions Cup play-offs, albeit in a losing cause for Harlequins.
South African fans would have winced when André Esterhuizen flattened Bok fly-half Handré Pollard. And yet, Esterhuizen’s well-timed hit did not stop Pollard from getting a sharp pass away to a Montpellier teammate.
Some have criticised Pollard’s performance against Harlequins. Pollard missed a crucial kick to touch, and Danny Care and Marcus Smith’s deft touches thereafter culminated in what many are calling the try of the season.
The Bok fly-half only recently returned from injury, though, and will take some time to regain his form. Montpellier’s aggregate win against Harlequins ensures that Pollard will get another opportunity to shine on the Champions Cup stage next month.
The northern-hemisphere season – of which South African teams are now a part – is entering the business phase. Teams like the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers are competing for places in the URC play-offs, and for the game-changing opportunity to join the Champions Cup.
Many top Boks, however, are already competing and excelling at that elite level in Europe, and are strengthening a bid for selection ahead of the 2022 Test season.
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