Super Rugby

Sharks, Stormers both seek new 'barn doors'

Jamie Roberts (Gallo Images)
Jamie Roberts (Gallo Images)

Their combined height? 3,87 metres. Combined weight? 222kg. That is not too far off the stuff of a lock pairing.

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Instead it is a statistical reflection of the approximate, joint levels of brawn possessed by the most recent inside centres for the Sharks and Stormers respectively, Andre Esterhuizen and Jamie Roberts, in now-suspended Super Rugby 2020.

When the Covid-19 cut came, their teams were easily the most competitive of the South African foursome in the competition, too: the Sharks overall leaders after seven rounds of matches, and the Stormers lying a handy enough seventh after one less fixture than their coastal rivals.

It is entirely apt to submit that both bruisers - not without their defter touches, either - were influential in that state of affairs.

Occasional Springbok Esterhuizen was playing some of the all-round rugby of his life for the KwaZulu-Natalians, a commanding presence in all facets of the game virtually every weekend.

While not the most light-footed of attackers, he gave enormous go-forward in his channel and teed up plenty of space for speedier customers in the outside-back slots.

Roberts, meanwhile, was probably less influential creatively, but an astute defensive organiser, caller of plays and general calming presence in the Stormers’ back division - something evidenced, you would think, by the team’s concession of only 10 tries (easily a best, competition-wide) when the campaign went dormant.

But both men will very likely be absent when the respective franchises finally get back into mass training mode at some point in the coming weeks, most likely for some sort of domestic-only resumption of Super Rugby under a slightly different theme.

Esterhuizen has joined English club Harlequins in a lucrative deal, a switch that would have happened after an orthodox finish to Super Rugby in mid-June (assuming the Sharks had gone all the way to the showpiece): competitive rugby certainly won’t be happening again in South Africa by then.

It is not cut and dried yet that decorated Welsh legend Roberts’ adventure in the Western Cape is over after only half a dozen matches: the veteran signed up on initial five-month terms that would soon have been coming to an end, and Stormers head coach John Dobson confirmed on Monday that he had an arrangement with the 33-year-old that they would reassess his position later in the year.

A qualified doctor, Roberts has been back in the UK helping with the battle against the pandemic as a National Health Service volunteer.

But there must be a strong chance that both the Sharks and Stormers have said their respective farewells to two of the biggest, most physical "twelves" of Super Rugby.

Specimens like those two don’t just grow on trees, and it might require an adjustment of tactics: both teams may even benefit to some degree if they are able to introduce, for example, a more pronounced "stepper" and broadly elusive customer into the important position even if there is a sacrifice - very likely - in pure tonnage.

In Durban, the surrender of Esterhuizen should see a new lease on life (unless there are any unreported plans for an outside-the-fold acquisition at No 12) for Jeremy Ward, the 24-year-old former SA under-20 and Southern Kings star.

While versatile - he played most of the 2016 World Rugby under-20 Championship in England at outside centre for his country - he has played plenty of rugby in the closer channel for the Sharks and looks likeliest new midfield partner for captain and booming Springbok Lukhanyo Am.

Ward is considerably smaller than Esterhuizen both in height and weight, but he has a satisfying sort of fearlessness of and relish for contact requirements when necessary.

If the Stormers, meanwhile, are going to have to adjust soon enough to a post-Roberts landscape, Dobson is likely to be chewing over the credentials of both Dan du Plessis, the hitherto injury-prone but extremely gifted and multi-dimensional son of WP legend Michael who covers both midfield berths, and 21-year-old rookie Rikus Pretorius.

The latter, a former Grey College wunderkind, tips the scales at just over 100kg - sound credentials immediately for the busy No 12 channel - and if, as is common knowledge, WP Rugby are spiritedly hunting the signature of crowd-pleasing, Lions-based No 13 Wandisile Simelane, there could be a tantalising reunion at some point between youngsters Pretorius and Simelane in the Stormers/WP kit.

They played together in midfield for SA at the 2018 edition of the World Rugby Under 20 Championship in France, where the junior Boks earned the bronze medal.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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