Now … Specman to break Super Rugby bogey?

Rosco Specman (Gallo)
Rosco Specman (Gallo)

Cape Town – Rosco Specman is just the latest, long-time SA Sevens star to have a crack at flying in the face of recent historical patterns … by excelling in Super Rugby or, beyond it, the Test landscape.

The 29-year-old flier bade a fitting enough farewell to the shorter format over the weekend, being the lone Blitzbok to make the cut for the Cape Town Sevens “Dream Team” as his side ended as bronze medallists.

Specman scored one of the two tries as the Blitzboks partly atoned for the disappointment of failing to make the main showpiece by seeing off arch-rivals New Zealand 10-5 in the third-place playoff, and looked more consistently dangerous than most Blitzboks colleagues over the course of the two days.

But at a time when Neil Powell’s charges are so clearly rebuilding anyway following their Sevens Series world title success of a season earlier, they will have to make do for the remainder of the 2018/19 global campaign – resuming with the Hamilton leg in late January – without stalwart figure Specman.

He has signed a two-year deal at Loftus to represent both the Bulls in Super Rugby and Blue Bulls in the Currie Cup, and will now enter pre-season training in earnest for the 2019 SANZAAR competition.

Though still without a confirmed head coach, the Bulls entertain the Stormers in their opening fixture on February 16.

The visitors, of course, are the franchise who currently sport the services of Seabelo Senatla, another staple presence in the Blitzboks’ ranks for several years but now also dedicated – at least for the time being – to the XVs environment.

Senatla was a vastly-decorated Sevens player for some four years from 2013 onward, earning a reputation as one of the most prolific predators worldwide … a perfect blend of speed merchant and clinical opportunist, with defensive grit into the bargain.

Still only 25, he won gold with the Blitzboks at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and was part of the squad who earned bronze at the Rio Olympics in 2016 (although he missed the actual playoff match for that status through injury and was sportingly presented with the medal by his replacement Francois Hougaard).

It has been well less than plain sailing for Senatla, however, since returning to XVs play at Newlands, amidst a wave of hype and excitement.

Although injuries have played a significant role in curtailing his effectiveness, the lean wing has generally found Super Rugby for the Stormers a much tougher proposition, personally, than increasingly diluted Currie Cup fare for WP.

His positional play and decision-making has often come up short of expectation, and the more claustrophobic space on offer a lot of the time has limited his ability to burst across the gain line.

Hopefully able to start 2019 with a clean slate fitness-wise, Senatla has the chance to make up lost ground, although he will be jockeying with the likes of Sergeal Petersen, JJ Engelbrecht and versatile back-three members Dillyn Leyds and SP Marais for starting spots out wide.

If anything, his slow transition is simply a reminder that crowd-pleasing success at Sevens isn’t an automatic ticket to “wow factor” in the more uncompromising landscape of Super Rugby, in particular.

So that’s where the Bulls will be hoping Specman, armed by prior Currie Cup experience with the Sharks, Pumas and Cheetahs, can rousingly bust the trend: they see him as a vital provider of X-factor, not something that presented itself in bag-loads as they ended 2018 Super Rugby in lowly 12th overall.

Like Senatla, Specman is no physical juggernaut at 1.76m and 85kg (though he has the advantage of slightly superior weight to his former Sevens ally) but that hasn’t stopped other “little guys” like Damian McKenzie and Cheslin Kolbe (now Euro-based) from illuminating the predominantly southern-hemisphere competition.

He is a fine gap-tacker at Sevens, aided by his sense of awareness and wonderful acceleration out of the blocks, and perhaps his rich experience now from all forms of rugby will prove a blessing for him at the Bulls: he will be competing with men like the muscular Travis Ismaiel, Duncan Matthews, Divan Rossouw and Springbok “comeback kid” Cornal Hendricks – cleared to resume rugby at this tier after much-publicised health problems – for wing jerseys.

The Bulls also have in their ranks Tim Agaba, the mobile Ugandan-born loose forward who is also no stranger to the Blitzboks but was curtailed to one appearance in Super Rugby last year: he still has plenty to prove in the competition.

Remember that another popular Sevens campaigner, Kwagga Smith, is also committed full-time to XVs with the Lions nowadays, but tended to blow either hot and cold for them in Super Rugby last season with not much in between.

A 158-cap SA Sevens veteran, Smith is presently furthering his “re-education” in the 15-man game with a stint in the Japanese Top League ahead of Super Rugby 2019.

An orthodox open-side flanker, he was handed a maiden Test opportunity for Rassie Erasmus’s experimental side in the opening match of the international season earlier this year against Wales in Washington DC, but failed to make the desired impact either at the breakdown or in open play in the defeat and never resurfaced in green and gold as the season ground onward.

He also went largely “missing” in the Super Rugby final against the Crusaders, where the visitors from Johannesburg were soundly beaten 37-18 despite another spirited earlier campaign.

Against those backdrops, Specman proving a genuine force to be reckoned with for the Bulls in Super Rugby would be a breath of fresh air …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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