Peter Bills: South African players continue to shine

Talking Rugby Column
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The Independent Online

Another day, another big rugby occasion and another South African shines. Is there no end to the constant supply line of top class rugby players from the southern hemisphere country which is the Rugby World Cup reigning champions?

Last weekend in the Heineken Cup semi-finals, South Africans again distinguished themselves. Tight head prop Brian Mujati was on show for English club Northampton and Gavin Hume played for French club Perpignan.

Given his side’s difficulties under pressure all over the field, Hume was hardly a stand-out player for Perpignan. But Mujati, who has been a revelation since arriving at Franklin’s Gardens in the East Midlands, had another superb game.

Mujati has come on so well, impressed so many people that even the Springbok selectors are said to have suggested that he could yet be a bolter for the South African World Cup squad later this year. Northampton fans would understand why.

They have seen his immense improvement and top form, both as a scrummager, the No. 1 priority, of course, for a tight head, but also in terms of ball carrying and line-out lifting assistance.

In any other country, Mujati would probably be first choice tight head. But the Springbok selectors prefer to choose players who stayed at home to play their rugby and, let’s face it, with the likes of Jannie du Plessis around, they’re not exactly short of a decent tight head. Even so, Mujati ought to go to the World Cup.

Meanwhile, Stade Toulouse had South African loose head prop Daan Human as a second half substitute in Dublin while Leinster saw another outstanding performance from hooker Richardt Strauss, the Pretoria born player who won 54 caps for the Cheetahs between 2006 and 2009 before switching to the Irish province.

Shrugging off the nightmare start of seeing his first two line-out throws disappear into the hands of Stade Toulouse forwards, Strauss gave an all-action display, full of raw courage and utter commitment that somehow epitomised Leinster’s performance. The Irish team reached the final at the expense of the French defending champions who have already signed Springbok prop Gurthro Steenkamp for next season.

But it was yet another South African, one much less known, who caught the eye when he came on as a second half substitute for Leinster. Johannesburg-born prop Heinke Van der Merwe, who was 26 this week is with Leinster on a 2 year contract, having replaced yet another South African prop, CJ van der Linde in Dublin.

Van der Merwe is already a full Springbok international, having made his Test debut at the age of 22 against Wales in Cardiff in 2007. He toured with the Springboks to the northern hemisphere in 2009 yet is only second choice loose head at Leinster behind Ireland international Cian Healy.

Yet the impact made by the South African when he replaced Healy, who had a blood injury, in the 52 nd minute of last Saturday’s semi-final was simply stunning. At his first scrum, fed by Toulouse, his drive into Toulouse tight head Census Johnston was so powerful that the whole French scrum swung around alarmingly. As it disintegrated, players detached and Toulouse were penalised. From the penalty, Leinster fly half Jonathan Sexton kicked a vital penalty.

Leinster coach Joe Schmidt had fully intended to send Healy back on once his injury had been cleaned up. But the Irish international never re-appeared, testimony to Van der Merwe’s superb work.

Schmidt said “When Heinke came on it was a moment of intense action. And he played so well we decided to leave him out there.”

Van der Merwe put a possible Springbok career on hold to go to the northern hemisphere. Some might have thought that gamble had failed when he failed to get past Healy for a regular starting place. But he reminded a great many people of his considerable qualities at the weekend.

And South African players in a multitude of positions at clubs and provinces right across Europe, Britain and Ireland are reminding us every day of just what fine rugby men they are.