Super Rugby

Sharks: So long to their R7.8m man?

Andre Esterhuizen (Gallo Images)
Andre Esterhuizen (Gallo Images)

The Sharks are increasingly likely to have seen the last of strapping midfield enforcer Andre Esterhuizen at Super Rugby level.

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If so, Esterhuizen has indisputably gone out on a high, playing no small role in their rise to top-of-the-table outfit, both domestically and more broadly, at the point when the coronavirus crisis forced suspension of the 2020 tournament in mid-March ... and he is also about to enter a new world of formidable, possibly R7.8million-rand-per-year wealth with Harlequins in the English Premiership.

The chance of Super Rugby resuming this season looks increasingly remote, given the varying degrees and durations of multinational lockdowns in force.

A stronger likelihood, as reported - if there is to be any prospect of fresh rugby activity from some point in June - is an impromptu, all home-based tournament featuring the four SA Super Rugby franchises and PRO14 sides the Cheetahs and Kings.

Under ordinary circumstances, Super Rugby was due to have ended this year with the final on June 20, so when he put pen to paper with ‘Quins in January, Esterhuizen would have done so on the likely understanding that he would join up with them as a big-name recruit well in time for the 2020/21 northern hemisphere campaign.

Clubs there will be hoping for a fresh, unimpeded start after a badly disrupted final portion of the 2019/20 season, although Harlequins will also be aware that Esterhuizen, who narrowly missed the World Cup squad “boat” in Japan but has been in superb form since, is likely to come into the picture for Springbok plans in the Rugby Championship - currently scheduled for August and September.

The brawny 26-year-old did start two Tests under then-head coach (now more specifically director of rugby) Rassie Erasmus in 2019, ahead of the victorious RWC ... and both were Bok victories, against Australia in Johannesburg and Argentina in Pretoria.

Esterhuizen has eight caps, but just based on his recent exploits with the vibrant Sharks, he will be a strong challenger to Bok inside centre incumbent Damian de Allende this year.

Bear in mind that even once he has finally quit Kings Park, the player will retain, for some time, the knowledge of his deep-rooted synergy with Sharks captain and Bok occupier of the outside channel Lukhanyo Am.

They have been a great foil for each other during the Sharks’ elegant run of both excellent results and easy-on-the-eye try-scoring exploits in 2020, Esterhuizen’s enormously strong physique and ability to draw in defenders to himself doing plenty to create opportunities in better space for the various, nippy and elusive athletes among the outside backs.

Once more renowned as a slightly indelicate “basher”, the 112kg Esterhuizen has increasingly developed the skills side to his game, offloading deftly out of the tackle and passing with crisp authority, while also enhancing his peripheral vision to sniff out counter-attack opportunities and the like.

The Sharks have had fine value out of the player, considering that he joined them out of school (Klerksdorp High) in time for the 2013 campaign at age-group level, and then onto both their Super Rugby and Currie Cup tiers a year later.

During his time in the Sanzaar competition, the Sharks have reached the knockout phase five times in six completed seasons - the lone exception being 2015 - and were well on the way to a notably productive showing in the 2020 version.

A little like Bok colleague Eben Etzebeth, who finally left the Stormers at the end of the 2019 campaign to join French glamour club Toulon, Esterhuizen has been a one-franchise man in South Africa, so few could begrudge him his switch - which may help make him an even more rounded, wiser player - to the moneyed “north”.

If UK-initiated reports that he joins London-based Harlequins on terms of 340 000 pounds a year are correct, his worth in rands has only jumped spectacularly in the last few weeks, during the ongoing global health/economic crisis.

When he scribbled his signature at the start of the year, that translated to some R6.4-million at a rand-pound exchange rate of about 19; it has since ballooned to 23, meaning he should be worth R7.8-million annually at this juncture.

If he wasn’t already, that unquestionably places him right among South Africa’s rugby-playing elite financially ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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