Cape Town – Super Rugby 2018 gets underway this weekend and, with the tournament having been restructured once more, there is a renewed sense of optimism for the South African sides.
The Lions, Sharks, Stormers and Bulls will be joined by the Jaguares in the South African Conference, and the four local sides will all be backing themselves to secure a path to the playoffs.
It is fitting that the change in Super Rugby format coincides with a new dawn for South African rugby. With the Springboks having parted ways with coach Allister Coetzee, there is a fresh opportunity for players to prove their international credentials.
Rassie Erasmus is the man to impress with three Tests against England coming up in June.
Every player obviously wants to play for the Springboks, but here we identify two from each franchise who are in dire need of impressive Super Rugby seasons.
All of the below players have shown immense potential without ever having delivered, or having been given the opportunity to deliver, on the international stage.
There was a time when the 27-year-old was considered the form wing in the country, but injury in 2017 meant that he fell out of favour with the Boks. Combrinck is still injured and is only expected back in the middle of April, but when he does return he will have a lot to prove. His pace, skill and kicking ability make him an attractive option in the green and gold, but he will only get back there if he proves his fitness and shows the form that has made him such a valuable member of this Lions squad.
A legend on the Sevens circuit, the time is now for Smith to prove his worth on the 15s stage. He is aggressive, physical, strong and fast, but he needs to demonstrate his ability to win ball on the ground consistently this year. Still just 24, Smith has a bright future in the game. He has expressed his desire to play for the Springboks in the past, and with a new face in charge of the national side, this could be the year he breaks into contention.
The Stormers prop has also had a tough time with injury, and it is important that he bounces back from those troubles in 2018. He will miss the first part of the season as he continues to recover from the neck injury that ruined his 2017. Malherbe has long been considered one of South African rugby’s brightest front row prospects, and he will be desperate to get some game time and form back under his belt as the Boks plot the way forward to 2019.
Damian de Allende
If ever there was a man who needed a big year, it is De Allende. The centre has not delivered the promise he showed in 2015 on either the Super Rugby or international stages. In 2018, he has another opportunity. Midfield has been a problem for the Boks for the past two years and a firing De Allende would go a long way to easing those woes. He needs to produce the goods for his franchise first, though, and hopefully he gets off to a positive start against the Jaguares on Saturday.
Thomas du Toit
Loosehead, tighthead, back to loosehead and then back to tighthead. The highly-rated Sharks front-rower has been shuffled around far too many times in his short professional career, but it looks like the Durbanites have settled on tighthead for 2018. Still just 22, Du Toit has plenty of time to put his hand up for national honours. But with the likes of Malherbe, Ruan Dreyer and Wilco Louw all in the tighthead mix, Du Toit needs a big year to get himself into the same conversation.
Injury robbed Am of a shot at a decent run in the Bok set-up last year, but he did eventually make his debut in the final Test of the year against Wales. It was in Super Rugby, though, where Am was impressive in 2017. He is expected to partner the hard-running Andre Esterhuizen in midfield this year, and that should give him plenty of opportunities to make attacking runs off the 12 channel. If he replicates his form from last year’s tournament, it is hard to see Am being ignored by the Boks in June.
The Springboks are crying out for a fullback after the struggles of Andries Coetzee last year, and Gelant is surely next in line and the popular choice to wear the No 15 jersey in 2018. The natural ability and attacking enterprise has always been there, but now Gelant needs to stay fit and do the basics well to prove that he has what it takes to be entrusted as a Springbok fullback. Pat Lambie and Frans Steyn are reportedly being lined up by Erasmus, so Gelant will not have it all his own way.
Lood de Jager
With Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert and Pieter-Steph du Toit all heavily involved with the Boks in 2017, SA Rugby’s 2015 Player of the Year saw himself slip down the pecking order somewhat. It is important that, this year, he wrestles his way back into the Springbok first team and he can do that by standing tall for the Bulls. Etzebeth, of course, is out for the first half of Super Rugby and De Jager will have a big opportunity to emerge as one of the form South African locks in the tournament.