Nothing is as hopeful as a Rugby World Cup year for a country like South Africa that’s always seen as a potential winner. So, in keeping with this year’s much-anticipated season, here are five players worth watching:
Juarno Augustus (Western Province, age 21)
At 1.88m tall and weighing 111kg, the only sidestep in Augustus’ locker is, understandably, that of the Maori persuasion. This is why the Western Province’s eighth man already goes by the nickname Trokkie – because he is built like a dump truck and likes nothing better than to run through people. As 21-year-olds go, this is a man-child with nothing but bad intentions. His first full season of first-class rugby showed as much as he bullied grown men in contact, Duane Vermeulen-style.
The 2017 World Rugby Under-20 player of the year is one to look out for, especially if he manages to shake off the shoulder injury he kept playing with last year and, dare I say it, keeps working on his offloading in contact.
Wandisile Simelane (Lions, age 20)
The primary indicator that Simelane is a gifted player is his inclusion on this list coming as no surprise. This is because his exploits for the SA Schools team (2015 to 2016), the SA Under-20 side (2016 to 2017) and the Lions’ Currie Cup team late last year have already made him a household name, despite his youth.
The attractive thing about the man who came perilously close to having a soccer career is his all-round ability. He is an outside centre, but he can play wing if you’re inclined to waste him out there; his game sense and accuracy from the kicking tee means he can also play fly half; and he doesn’t mind a big hit when it presents itself. You heard it here: Simelane is the next big thing in South African rugby.
Aphelele Fassi (Sharks, age 20)
Fassi was in school in 2017, yet he started – and won – a Currie Cup final last year. Few players look as if they belong the way Fassi, a nerveless top order batsman at school, does. Probably the best example of this would be how he fetched the irrepressible Aphiwe Dyantyi after the fellow former Dale College pupil had intercepted around his 22m line in the Currie Cup semifinal against the Lions. However high the level goes does not bother Fassi, and his skills are all there.
Much like Simelane, the fullback, who can also play wing, is one of those players whose multiple skills from other codes means he can think – and execute – a million things in a few seconds. A great example of this was the bicycle kick touch-finder he pulled off against the Leopards in the SuperSport Rugby Challenge last year.
Scarra Ntubeni (Western Province, age 27)
At 27, Ntubeni probably looks like an incongruent “oom” among the kids on this list. But with Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus having adopted the policy of a nonplaying third hooker in his squad this year, that final spot looks as contestable as ever when it comes to this year’s World Cup. Because of a multitude of injuries, South Africa has only caught a glimpse of Ntubeni’s value as a hooker.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, who struggle with one aspect or other of hooker play, Ntubeni is as all-round as they come in the position. That’s why his going through the Currie Cup without injury was encouraging from a national team perspective.
Here’s to an injury-free year.
Jan Serfontein (Montpellier, age 25)
He is another player who may look a little out of place on this list, but this is Jan Serfontein, the 2012 World junior player of the year and a man who looked to be finally realising his potential for the Springboks when he decided to complicate things by signing for Montpellier in 2017. Because he asked not to be considered for the Boks after signing for the French club, Serfontein’s commitment to the national cause has been questioned in certain quarters.
But his recent declaration that he wants to play for the Boks means that, at the very least, he should be considered again based purely on what he offers.
No disrespect to the solid work done by Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel, the Bok midfield could use a sprinkle of the gold dust Serfontein could bring.