- Ruan Dreyer’s return to Ellis Park has again highlighted that SA rugby has an abundance of proven class at tighthead.
- Depth at loosehead has, however, been a problem for some time in the local game.
- So-called jokers – players who can scrum on both sides – might rise to prominence again, but it’s unlikely Trevor Nyakane and Thomas du Toit will be involved in such switches.
While the Lions’ recruitment of Ruan Dreyer is good news for the franchise, his return to Ellis Park highlights one of local rugby’s biggest on-field challenges currently: An abundance of exciting as well as experienced tightheads, but an alarming lack of looseheads with proven credentials.
The irony of the situation is that, approximately two years ago, the exact opposite was true as franchises bemoaned a dearth of depth in the No 3 jersey.
How things can change so quickly.
To illustrate just how concerning the situation is, it’s useful to examine each of the franchise’s respective situations … and, in general, the divide is very apparent.
THE GOOD – TIGHTHEADS
Jake White’s acquisition of Marcel van der Merwe has done wonders for a position that was previously under scrutiny at Loftus.
The 29-year-old is a proven performer, having played seven Tests for the Springboks and becoming a key player for Toulon since his move in 2016.
He will provide proper competition for Springbok favourite Trevor Nyakane, who maintained a good standard upon his return from his World Cup heartache but can do with classy backup.
Mornay Smith, a stalwart at age-group level, has senior experience too.
Jannie du Plessis’ welcome, if unexpected, stint didn’t quite deliver on results, though team management has spoken glowingly of his mentoring abilities.
Carlu Sadie, one of SA’s most promising No 3s, can be reasonably expected to elevate his game further after making a fine impression in 2019’s campaign when he was still on the Stormers’ payroll.
Ruan Dreyer’s return is seemingly a provision for Du Plessis not extending his stay, while also – much like at the Bulls – providing a meaningful battle for the jersey, which would do Sadie’s development no harm.
Frans van Wyk and Johannes Jonker remain on the fringes, but can be considered useful options.
While the Durbanites have no player older than 26 in the position, they can certainly lay claim to having some of the most gifted youngsters in the country on their books.
Thomas du Toit’s pedigree, at 25, is potentially world-class, with the “eldest brother” of the group, John-Hubert Meyer, providing stellar, underrated backup.
Then there’s Michael Kumbirai, who’ll be desperate to show he’s over three career-threatening injuries, and Khutha Mchunu, who’s burly frame packs some real punch.
Hanru Jacobs, 20, also has a bright future.
The departure of Wilco Louw has left the Cape franchise thin.
Frans Malherbe is the undisputed kingpin in the No 3 jersey, but no one currently can back him up in terms of reputation.
The wily and under-appreciated Ali Vermaak is capable of doing a job, despite having played most of his senior career at loosehead, while Sazi Sandi, a former Baby Bok with leadership credentials, is ready to graduate to senior level.
THE BAD – LOOSEHEADS
Lizo Gqoboka is a prominent Springbok and is showing signs of reaching his prime, especially after courting interest from Montpellier for a short stint during last year’s World Cup.
He has a highly promising backup in Simphiwe Matanzima, who’ll need to fend off competition from Baby Bok Gerhard Steenekamp, who recently signed a contract extension.
Kudzwai Dube, 20, has also raised his profile after starring in the latter part of last year’s Under-21 campaign.
Depth is not necessarily a problem in the Bulls’ context, rather their No 1s being prone to injury.
Dylan Smith has become the almost automatic wearer of the No 1 jersey at Ellis Park, though there was a feeling in 2020 that he’d stalled after a few major injuries and continued to get picked on reputation.
Sti Sithole will hope that some introspection over his teammate will help him in gaining a more extended opportunity in the starting XV, particularly given his pedigree as a very skilful scrummer.
Much hope is also invested in 22-year-old Nathan McBeth, a dual junior international for the Boks and Scotland.
Much like their teammates on the other side of the scrum, the Sharks don’t possess grizzled looseheads but highly promising ones.
Ox Nche, who’ll be keen to add to his sole international cap, was playing like a man possessed in the latter stages of the short Super Rugby season and has a fine deputy in Mzamo Majola.
Juan Schoeman’s move to Sale is a major blow, but academy product James Scott could come through.
Steven Kitshoff towers above the rest at Newlands, though there’s much excitement over the expected emergence of Kwenzo Blose.
The Capetonians will also hope Vermaak can continue to provide stellar service and other juniors, such as Leon Lyons and Dian Bleuler, are present, though they have virtually no senior level experience.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN
Currently, it seems that South African rugby has two options.
The franchise will either have to grit it out with promising but raw and inexperienced talent, particularly when the already threadbare depth is eroded by injury.
Or there’ll need to be a premium, based on the so-called jokers who can scrum on both sides.
Two Springboks, Nyakane and Du Toit, are the most high-profile players capable of fulfilling a dual role, but given the investments made in them to switch (as well as their success), one can’t see their coaches being too keen.
One interesting possibility is Dreyer, whose preference for tighthead can’t mask the fact that his previous experience at loosehead could become handy.