Cape Town - Here is my personal choice, in a round-by-round exercise, of South African players to lead the charge for excellence in the third week of Super Rugby 2020.
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GOLD: Steven Kitshoff (Stormers)
Stormers head coach John Dobson did confess to a certain pre-game nervousness about the - largely injury-enforced - balance of his loose trio against the Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday.
Minus the options of men like Siya Kolisi and Jaco Coetzee for the primary fetcher berth, he fielded less-than-specialist Johan du Toit at six, with older brother Pieter-Steph on the other flank and an impressive, returning “Trokkie” Augustus at No 8.
As things turned out, he needn’t have harboured notable fears: his captain and loose-head prop Kitshoff admirably proved the most capable player, over the ball, across the two sides on the ding-dong day.
I thought Kitshoff was quite magnificent in that capacity in another long personal shift on the sun-baked Ellis Park pitch, his barrel-like 120kg frame quite unbudgeable in the engineering of turnovers or at very least slowing-down of Lions ball in the 33-30 thriller the Capetonians pinched dramatically late to stay unbeaten in the competition.
Not only that, but the 28-year-old Springbok was a rock all over again at his key task at scrum-time, first against veteran Jannie du Plessis and then the hosts’ replacement tighthead and ex-Stormers representative Carlu Sadie for a while.
Kitshoff has clearly found the cares of juggling acting captaincy with his multifunctional playing tasks commendably comfortable to handle; the tough part for Dobson over the next few weeks will be making sure the front-ranker doesn’t succumb to fatigue, especially with certain Bok-related “hawks” watching closely.
You’d imagine he will be considered too valuable to rest when the Stormers tackle last season’s conference winners the Jaguares at Newlands on Saturday afternoon - the Argentineans’ scrum is usually deemed targetable - but maybe the iffy Blues at the same venue a week later, before a bye, is an opportunity to give prize asset “Kitsie” a freshening fortnight’s hiatus and give Ali Vermaak a deserved start at No 1?
SILVER: Elton Jantjies (Lions)
When the Lions went down heavily (38-8) to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires in round one, early doubts surfaced about the wisdom of flyhalf talisman Elton Jantjies being saddled with the leadership burden as well.
After all, Jantjies doesn’t always ooze the most natural of confidence in rugby, has had a “disciplinary” or two in his time, and there is also the reasonable case for arguing that his silky qualities in the No 10 channel are best left as his primary area of responsibility.
Perhaps influenced by his erratic goal-kicking in Argentina - which can happen to anybody, skipper or not – some critics quickly raised their eyebrows.
But had it not been for that polished, patiently-constructed premier Stormers move of the entire match on Saturday in the 82nd minute, the Lions would now have recovered to a heartening “two from three”, results-wise.
If they’d only held out at 30-26 well after the siren, too, Jantjies would have been the toast of Johannesburg (as it was, he earned the kiss-your-sister laurel of player of the match despite the eleventh-hour outcome heartbreak) for his fulsome contribution to what ended up being a near-upset rather than Full Monty in that regard.
Inventive and crisp in his intentions for much of the contest, the left-footed general saved his best rugby for the very advanced stages of the derby, including the cleanest of breaks in slightly fractured play for his own try in the 69th minute to begin the Lions’ spirited comeback from 26-15 down to hit the lead in the 73rd.
Jantjies, always renowned for his dinks, chips and grubbers, had earlier produced a trademark gem in that area to tee up Courtnall Skosan’s dot-down on the half-hour mark.
That the Lions had clawed back to within a very whisker of stealing the honours against their Cape rivals seemed to say plenty about the character in their ranks ... and that can’t really mean glaring dissent in the camp over their holder of the on-field tiller, can it?
BRONZE: Sanele Nohamba (Sharks)
More than just the Sharks’ current “impact” scrumhalf at present, little dynamo Nohamba confirmed broader footballing credentials on the Sharks’ otherwise awkward, badly injury-disrupted outing in the Cake Tin.
The visitors, on route to an eventual 38-22 first setback of the campaign, had already been plunged into relative structural chaos when the reserve took to the field himself as early as the 20th minute because rookie flyhalf Boeta Chamberlain had failed a head injury assessment.
Previously, they’d lost Thomas du Toit ahead of the game through illness, while ace Bok wing Makazole Mapimpi also failed to reappear after a dozen or so minutes with his own head knock, meaning a lengthy stint out wide for Jeremy Ward.
Nohamba, 21, was tasked with going straight to pivot as a makeshift option … and within three minutes was responsible for a majestic midfield break which eventually led to Tyler Paul’s try.
Those who have witnessed Nohamba’s development from schoolboy level (at DHS) will attest to his accomplishment as a place-kicker ... and he promptly also converted the score.
Considering the difficulty of being thrown into the No 10 channel so “cold” in Wellington, the player produced a more than acceptable showing, enough to have at least one TV-watching Springbok of yesteryear, Keith Andrews, enthuse on Twitter: “Wonderful talent ... a ball-player!”
He also showed his guts, despite a relatively modest sub-70kg frame, in getting up without fuss after a fairly crude, charge-in challenge on him while grounded from the ‘Canes stroppy Dane Coles: many observers felt it was a cardable offence on the All Black’s part.
At very least, Nohamba’s challenge to seasoned Louis Schreuder for first-choice status in his preferred berth certainly continues ...
*Agree? Disagree? Let me hear your own SA player ‘podium’ thoughts from the weekend on Twitter: @RobHouwing