Pro14 a Springbok springboard?
SPOTLIGHT: When the Pro14 restarts this week, there will be a distinct focus on the South African players in the competition.
Even with the Rugby Championship once again in doubt, following the new outbreak of COVID-19 in the planned New Zealand bio bubble, the British and Irish Lions tour next year will keep the interest in Springbok at the heart of the tournament’s debate.
World Cup winners Rudolph Snyman and Damian de Allende will hog some of the headlines when they feature for Munster.
However, Ulsterman Marcel Coetzee can use the tournament to reignite his international career, following his injury-enforced absence
The retirement of Francois Louw, the man who effected the turnover penalty that got the Boks out of jail in the World Cup semifinal against Wales, has left a vacancy for a ball-scavenging loose forward.
There are quality candidates in South Africa – such as the Bulls’ Marco van Staden, who could fill the role that Louw did so well.
However, it is debatable if any South African is as accomplished in that specialist fetching role as the experienced Coetzee.
The product of Durban’s Port Natal Hoërskool was the most unlucky member of the national squad that prepared for last year’s World Cup, with his one opportunity to play himself into the group that travelled to Japan being cruelly scuppered by the injury that forced him from the field early in the warm-up Test against Argentina in Pretoria.
There were some debates around the merits for Coetzee’s selection, but it was the second time that Coetzee was frustratingly ruled out by injury from competing for a place in the final World Cup squad.
It happened to him in the build-up to the 2015 tournament in England too, a period where he was playing great rugby.
Like many South Africans campaigning overseas – and in the Pro14 in particular – Coetzee has grown since then.
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If he can get over his injury problems and return to top form for Ulster in this last month of the 2019/2020 Pro14 season, then carry it into the soon-to-start 2020/2021 season, he must surely come into reckoning for the Bok spot left vacant by Louw.
Coetzee did say after he was injured last August that he was determined to make up for the disappointment of missing out on another World Cup by featuring for the Boks in the much-hype 2021 series against the British and Irish Lions.
He won’t be alone though, for the Pro14 is played across the broadest base of nations represented in the Lions squad – Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
The tournament will feature an array of players from both squads who will have set next July’s series as their goal.
That is a good reason why the absence of the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings from the final part of the interrupted 2019/2020 season, because of COVID-19-enforced travel restrictions, should not diminish the South African interest in the competition.
No doubt the Bok brains trust of Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus and coach Jacques Nienaber will take a keen interest in the form of many players in the Pro14.
The Bok duo readily admits that the Pro14 provided a finishing school opportunity to their coaching education in their two years guiding Munster and they know just what a good testing ground for international rugby the competition is.
They’ve maintained that interest since their return to South Africa in 2018, because there are so many expats playing in the competition.
With the Lions tour on the horizon, there is reason for the additional interest – as Erasmus and Nienaber can run their eyes over potential opponents as well as the emerging Northern Hemisphere coaching trends.