South African-born stars are once again primed to showcase their skills in this year’s Six Nations, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
It’s now become the norm to see several South African players make their presence felt for their adopted nations in the northern hemisphere showcase. This year, four of the competing countries have such mercenaries in their ranks, with Scotland leading the way with four.
With the 2022 edition kicking off next weekend, we take a look at the elite expats who’ll spice up the championship:
They make them big in Pretoria and Willemse’s a prime example of that. The teenager who took names at Monument and won the Under-20 World Championship with the Junior Springboks on home soil in 2012 is all of 2.01m tall and a whopping 135kg and has beefed up Les Bleus’ engine room since 2019. The 29-year-old lock’s a gain line beast but also surprisingly mobile for a man-mountain. He’ll want to make amends for last year when he missed the championship decider after copping a ban for an act of foul play against Wales.
Bernard le Roux
A familiar face in the French set-up, Le Roux debuted against the All Blacks all the way back in 2013 and is three caps shy of the 50-Test milestone. The 32-year-old’s carved out quite the career, which interestingly started in Amsterdam, where he had a stint with amateur club ASRV Ascrum in 2008. He then had brief spells at Boland and Border before flying off to France in 2009. The Racing 92 veteran’s a 1.97m, 116kg physical force, a feared enforcer adept in the back and second row, whose athleticism and conditioning had Les Bleus coach Fabien Galthie hailing him as “a type of decathlete” last year.
Thus, there’s a certain feel-good factor to the way Odendaal has lit it up for the Lions, following the Captain Fantastic lineage at the franchise. He’s led by example with his passion and power in midfield, inspiring his troops in the way he puts his body on the line.
It’s no surprise that he leads the Lions in successful carries (30), clean breaks (4) and defenders beaten (13), posting numbers that put him among the cream of the crop in these categories at 14th, joint 24th and joint 24th respectively. What can’t be measured is his heart and while the underappreciated 28-year-old may never don the green and gold, he’s a helluva performer at this level.
Perseverance and patience have served Herring as well in his career as his power has. He had to bide his time as legendary Rory Best’s understudy for years at Ulster, for whom he reached the 200-cap milestone last October, while his Test career has largely been starts and stops. The Cape Town-born hooker debuted for Ireland in 2014 but only doubled his tally three years later back on home soil against South Africa. The hard-nosed SACS product made two appearances off the bench last year to take his tally to 23 and the 31-year-old will be relishing a return to the Six Nations stage.
One of Willemse’s teammates in the 2012 Under-20 World Championship-winning Junior Springbok side, Steyn’s been in Italy ever since and has been a mainstay in the national side since making his debut in the 2016 Six Nations. A strong, dynamic ball-carrying back-rower comfortable at eighthman and blindside flank, he could bring up his Test half-century in this year’s championship, having donned the Azzurri colours on 46 occasions. With nearly 100 caps, he’s a Benetton legend and at 29, he still has plenty of gas left in the tank.
An evergreen warhorse, Nel has been an absolute stalwart of Scottish rugby. He’s represented his adopted country in 43 Tests and two World Cups, anchoring the scrum as only a seasoned tighthead can, and is in his ninth season at current United Rugby Championship leaders Edinburgh. Born in Loeriesfontein, the former Cheetahs strongman is in the twilight of his career at 35 years of age. He realises this could be his last Six Nations and promises to pour everything into it, be it as a starter or off the bench.
As wide and powerful as a tank with the engine and mobility of a Land Rover, Schoeman’s spoiling to stamp his authority on the Six Nations after making his Scotland debut against Tonga last year. A product of Affies, his consistently colossal form for Edinburgh made it a matter of time before the Scots unleashed the Viking-like loosehead prop on the Test arena and they did as soon as he completed his qualification period. There’s nothing like a maiden Six Nations campaign to rev up an international rookie and with his horsepower, the former Bulls behemoth will be tough to stop.
A fast, fleet-footed finisher, Steyn had to wait over a year to win his second Test cap and it was well worth the wait as he scored four tries in the 60-14 trouncing of Tonga last October, becoming the first Scotland player to achieve the feat in 26 years and the only to do so at Murrayfield. The former Griquas gem, who’s also represented Scotland on the Sevens circuit, has been a prolific predator at the Glasgow Warriors and the 27-year-old will be hoping for more starting opportunities in his young international career. Regardless, he’s the type of player who maximizes his minutes.
Duhan van der Merwe
At 1.93m and 106kg, Van der Merwe’s a special juggernaut on the wing with his size, strength and speed and was one of the breakout stars of the global game in 2021. The former Junior Springbok took the Six Nations by storm in his maiden campaign, scoring a tournament-leading five tries, which saw him go on to make the most of being selected for the British & Irish Lions. The George-born giant is a game-changer, a match-winner with no let-up or holes in his game, who’ll be looking to blaze a trail of destruction yet again.
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