- They’re in direct battle at Newlands, but Siya Kolisi and Marco van Staden starting together for SA remains feasible.
- After five weeks of involuntary inactivity, the Bok captain has been tasked with hitting his straps swiftly for WP.
- Van Staden’s specialist skills on the open side will be increasingly hard for the national team to overlook.
Marco van Staden has spent many of the last few weeks effectively rolling the clock back.
In an age where many coaches favour hybrid-type players – yes, they can even be relatively tall for the role sometimes – and a belief that “almost anyone in the pack can get busy over the ball”, the Bulls’ nuggety No 6 has progressively reaffirmed the value of a genuinely specialist fetcher in the mix.
Van Staden, en route to the Loftus-based team’s triumph in the Super Rugby Unlocked phase of this unorthodox 2020/21 domestic season, has arguably come closer than anyone else in recent years to emulating a heyday-phase Heinrich Brussow for routine nuisance value at the breakdown.
Sadly, the now 34-year-old former Cheetahs favourite – he retired a year ago – had an injury-blighted career, going a long way to explaining his limit to 23 Test caps spread over some eight years.
But his premier period was undoubtedly in the 2009 season when he was hugely influential in the Springboks’ series triumph over the British and Irish Lions, and then a perpetual nightmare to the All Blacks in the onward, similarly triumphant Tri-Nations where New Zealand were whitewashed 3-0 in bilateral terms (Bloemfontein, Durban and Hamilton in that order).
Van Staden cannot credibly claim yet to be in the league of that illustrious predecessor of open-side play.
That is hardly his fault: the 25-year-old has only been recognised three times at international level so far, and as a substitute in all three instances, including debut against Argentina at Kings Park in 2018.
He missed out, too (narrowly, you’d imagine) on selection for the celebrated RWC 2019 squad in Japan.
But he has only upped his claims for deeper involvement in Bok plans next year during “Unlocked”, where no forward was more consistently lively tournament-wide on an individual basis.
It is a tall order, and with many hard yards ahead, but might Van Staden actually turn out better than Brussow for Test value, assuming that his claims simply become too inviting to overlook at the top level of the game?
Don’t write that scenario off: he has the same devout, scavenging instincts that Brussow did, and with his slightly superior build (around 106kg, 1.84m, to the ex-player’s roughly 100kg and 1.80m) probably sports better, more broad-shouldered credentials for surviving clean-outs and the like.
He also offers greater gusto as a ball-carrier and bruising tackler – even if surrendering a little in pace, perhaps, to the predecessor.
Van Staden finished Super Rugby Unlocked as impactfully as he had started it: being an awful nuisance to the Pumas on a heavier-than-usual Loftus surface last Saturday.
His conspicuous effectiveness was picked up on by SuperSport pundit and former Lions head coach Swys de Bruin in studio analysis a day later.
“He got five turnovers (officially) against the Pumas, but I counted one or two more where he slowed (the ball) down and didn’t get the reward,” said De Bruin.
“He is just so strong. You have to be very sharp; if you are late (against him at the breakdown) you are dead. He is the catalyst, so instrumental … so much their go-to guy to steal ball.
“Marco is able to ‘irritate’ several opposition players at once at a breakdown: the Bulls can make good ball (into) slow ball.
“How they handle the ball-stealing situation has been a key (to their Unlocked title-win).”
It will hardly have escaped the attention of the ambitious “limpet” from Krugersdorp that he – very usefully at this juncture – gets under an even more intense spotlight this weekend: a Currie Cup-opening derby against old enemies Western Province at Newlands on Saturday night (19:00).
What’s more, he is a little unexpectedly put into direct battle at No 6 with a certain Siya Kolisi, the World Cup-winning Springbok captain and also first-choice leader of the WP cause.
It is unexpected because many observers might have expected home mastermind John Dobson to reintroduce Kolisi to action in this high-stakes crunch off the bench: he has been side-lined for some five weeks by a leg injury picked up early in the rollercoaster match against the Pumas at Mbombela Stadium.
Instead of a cautious 20- or 30-minute gallop as a temporary impact player, however, Dobson has pinned his faith in the seasoned, iconic figure being able to hit the ground running after his layoff.
The rampant form of Van Staden only really adds to the pressure on the Zwide-born flanker to get stuck in forcefully and immediately; there will be little scope for him to “feel” his way back from his enforced hiatus.
Kolisi, of course, is a classic example of the adaptable characters so prevalent in loose-forward play worldwide these days: physically he falls somewhere in between an open-sider and blindside factor, while he quite probably also possesses the right levels of nous and other hallmarks to be an effective eighth-man if necessary.
His play carries all elements of the loosie mix, too: he does his share of work over the ball (a department where he may have to redouble his emphasis against Van Staden at Newlands), but is a dynamic carrier and strong tackler and loves to join linking and clever off-loading play, an area where he is especially effective in wider areas of the park.
So in some senses, he will not be too obsessively seeking to slug it out with the Bulls’ pilferer at the breakdown; Bongi Mbonambi and Steven Kitshoff are two other decorated Boks who will aid the Province cause there, while Duane Vermeulen is an additional breakdown colossus for the visitors.
There’s this to consider as well: hypothetically, if the Boks were suddenly asked to field a team in the next two or three weeks rather than some time nearer the middle of 2021, just what might their loose trio look like?
Considering the worryingly lengthy absence from rugby of Pieter-Steph du Toit, the blindside flank berth is a glaring Test vacancy.
If Van Staden’s blistering form only continues, what price Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber being partial to shifting Kolisi to No 7, installing Van Staden at out-and-out fetcher, and leaving Vermeulen as the obvious-pick final element of the trio at No 8?
Traditionally, South Africa love to field a behemoth, lock-like figure at blindside and Kolisi, in his tale of the tape, is just a little shy of that.
But when the powerful, rugged Vermeulen is your eight, that level of muscularity at blindside potentially becomes slightly less of a concern.
So when Kolisi and Van Staden lock horns at Newlands, just keep in mind that they are not automatically slugging it out for pecking-order respect, in bigger-picture terms, in the same berth.
All that said, their “clash of the sixes” here should provide an enthralling sideshow.
Neither will wish to play a too-obvious second fiddle …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing