Cape Town - Here is my personal choice, in what will be a round-by-round exercise, of South African players to lead the charge for excellence in the first week of Super Rugby 2020.
GOLD: Pieter-Steph du Toit (Stormers)
As if we didn’t know it already Du Toit - that unassuming, reluctant superstar from the dusty Swartland - merely confirmed on Saturday that he and any big-headedness are not bedfellows.
The World Rugby Player of the Year reverted in a flash to business as usual at the outset of Super Rugby, his constant energy and constructive aggression being a key feature of the Stormers pack’s clinical slow burn of their Hurricanes rivals in a heartening 27-0 whipping.
While others (including abrasive co-flank Jaco Coetzee) ran him close, I felt Du Toit topped the SA individual pile both at Newlands and beyond for the opening weekend.
Already looking in superb physical nick despite the recent off-season and lengthy Bok “celebratory tour” of major South African centres following RWC 2019, the 27-year-old blindside flank asserted himself on the carry in what seemed a split second in the mid-afternoon summer heat and never let up in that department and several others.
Watch replays of the game and you should quickly notice how frequently, if not in possession himself, Du Toit was the first support player over the ball for protective purposes when a colleague went to ground.
He also tidied up some awkward, deep lineout throws with majestic takes in the occasionally fresh south-easter swirling in the old stadium … and kept his cool like the tough but disciplined pro he is when his all-round excellence and work-rate became just too irksome to the outfoxed Hurricanes and rival loosie Du’Plessis Kirifi gave his face a bit of a working-over with his fingers.
SILVER: Makazole Mapimpi (Sharks)
As with Du Toit further down the coast the next day, wing speed-merchant Mapimpi getting my nod here from his Friday derby outing against the Bulls is open to constructive dissent.
Several fellow-backliners for his victorious (23-15) franchise, after all, also served notice of why they are highly touted in 2020, while in the Sharks’ engine room I was quite struck by the forceful driving at times of Bulls old boy Ruben van Heerden, newcomer James Venter’s manic energy at open-side flank and Sikhumbuzo Notshe’s apparent relish for his switch of scenery from the Western Cape.
No 11 Mapimpi, though, somehow just oozed electric endeavour to me whenever he was within a five-metre radius of the ball on the typically sticky KZN night.
Another Bok who appears to have made a very conscious attempt not to let the World Cup “hangover” affect his physical shape and fleet-footedness, he was constantly looking to find power fifth gear on the attack, or dance his way out of trouble in tight spaces.
But particularly strikingly, considering the fears some pundits (yes, me included) had harboured last year over his defensive game up to a quite advanced stage of the World Cup, I thought some of his whippet-like, back-tracking tackling was inspiring to many around him.