Champions Cup: Six South Africans who shone in the group stages including the Sharks’ experienced Springbok duo

David Skippers
SA players shining in Champions Cup image.jpg Stormers sharks bulls

The 2022/23 Champions Cup’s group stage has come to an end, and one of the big talking points was the introduction of the South African teams in this season’s competition.

All three teams gave a good account of themselves, with the Sharks and Stormers clinching home matches in the round of 16, against Munster and Harlequins, respectively, while the Bulls have an away clash against Toulouse.

Here, we look at two players from each of the three South African sides who caught the eye with outstanding performances during the Champions Cup’s earlier rounds.

Kurt-Lee Arendse – Bulls

The Springbok flyer has been in a rich vein of form for club and country over the past 12 months, and he has shown in the Champions Cup that he is one of the biggest threats with ball in hand in the tournament. Blessed with searing pace, brilliant footwork and an astute rugby brain, Arendse has shown that opponents can ill afford to give him space from the back as he has the ability to unlock the tightest defences with his superb skill-set.

Equally, at home on the wing or at full-back, the 26-year-old was amongst a group of first-choice players at the Bulls who were rested by their director of rugby, former Springbok head coach Jake White, during their first two Champions Cup fixtures – against Lyon and Exeter Chiefs – he was amongst their best performers when he did take to the field in the return fixtures against the same opposition.

In the match against Exeter at Loftus Versfeld, Arendse proved a real handful to the Premiership outfit and although he did not cross the whitewash for a try, he set up several attacks and beat defenders with ease. And although the men from Pretoria finished their campaign with a 31-7 away defeat against Lyon, Arendse left his stamp on that encounter as he crossed for his team’s only try and finished with a match-high 141 attacking metres gained.

Marco van Staden – Bulls

The Springbok loose forward has been at the forefront of the Bulls’ forward effort in the Champions Cup, and although the men from Pretoria have delivered a mixed bag of performances en route to the last 16, the same cannot be said of the 27-year-old who has impressed when taking to the field for Jake White’s charges.

Although the Champions Cup was an unfamiliar competition for all the South African teams at the start of the campaign, Van Staden could give his Bulls team-mates some valuable information on the tournament as he participated in it while playing for Leicester Tigers during the 2021/22 campaign. And although he was in that group of senior players who missed those opening Champions Cup matches, he soon made his presence felt with strong performances in their latter two fixtures.

Renowned for his breakdown skills, the tearaway gave a good account of himself in that department but also caught the eye as a ball carrier and was outstanding defensively. Although the Bulls will be overwhelming underdogs when they take on Toulouse in France in their round of 16 clash, they will deliver a competitive performance and don’t be surprised if Van Staden is at the forefront of that effort.

Siya Kolisi – Sharks

The South African rugby community were shocked at the start of this month when it was revealed that the Springbok skipper will be leaving their shores after the Rugby World Cup in France to further his career with Top 14 outfit Racing 92. Up to that point, Kolisi was in fine form for the Sharks, who were unbeaten in the Champions Cup after notching important victories against Harlequins and Bordeaux-Begles.

Like his good friend and long-time Bok team-mate Etzebeth, Kolisi was in the Sharks’ starting line-up in all their matches in the Champions Cup’s group stage, and despite losing their last match against Quins at Twickenham Stoop, the Sharks were competitive throughout their campaign with Kolisi’s excellent leadership as the team’s captain.

And despite that announcement of his post-World Cup departure, the 31-year-old is still a vital cog in the Sharks machine and based on his Champions Cup performances, he is still giving his all to the cause and will do everything to help them in their bid to lift the trophy as champions. Although he has played well in all their matches, Kolisi came to the fore with an outstanding all-round display in the Sharks’ clash against Bordeaux in Durban with his breakdown work, defence and ball carrying excellent throughout as the Sharks sealed a 32-3 triumph.

Eben Etzebeth – Sharks

The hard man of South African rugby was in the news recently when he showed he has an excellent grasp of the game’s laws by catching Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care by surprise at a ruck before stealing the ball and racing away to score a memorable try. Apart from that memorable moment, the veteran Springbok second-row has added a hard edge to the Sharks’ forward play, and his presence in their pack has been a big boost for the Durban-based outfit.

It was just over a year ago that Toulon president Bernard Lemaitre labelled Etzebeth as a “handicap” to the Top 14 club due to the Bok enforcer being expensive and often unavailable through injury and international commitments. Lemaître was eventually forced to eat his words as Etzebeth finished his stint at Toulon in superb form, and he continued in that vein at the Sharks, who made his debut for last October.

In the Champions Cup, the 31-year-old has been ever-present for the Sharks as he started in all four of their matches in the group stage against Harlequins and Bordeaux-Begles. Etzebeth has been a valuable source of possession for his team at the lineouts while also making valuable contributions as a ball carrier and a defender. His all-round ability helped the Sharks to victories in their first three matches, and in doing so, they booked their spot in the last 16 with a game to spare. Although the Sharks lost their last group match against Harlequins, Etzebeth still produced a top-class performance with his try, one of the encounter’s highlights.

Dan du Plessis – Stormers

Du Plessis has been one of the surprise packages for Stormers as he started the 2022/23 season on the fringes of his team’s starting line-up, but a string of impressive performances in the United Rugby Championship and Champions Cup has seen him cement himself as the men from the Cape’s first choice inside centre.

That has been no mean feat as his impressive performances has meant that another one of the Stormers’ star performers, the versatile Damian Willemse, has played mostly at full-back despite featuring in the number 12 jersey during his team’s victorious URC campaign in the 2021/22 season. However, Du Plessis deserves his spot in the run-on side as he has played consistently well during the Champions Cup, with his playmaking skills and running lines amongst the standout features of his game.

The 27-year-old’s ability to minimise mistakes has also caught the eye, and he has also impressed with good link-up play and he has done well to create ty-scoring opportunities for his team-mates. Also, as one of the Stormers’ chief playmakers, Du Plessis’ decision-making has been excellent, and despite failing to make the matchday squad for their first two matches of the tournament against Clermont Auvergne and London Irish, he has impressed with strong performances against the same opposition in their latter two games, and he capped a fine individual performance with a well-taken try against the French club in Cape Town at the weekend.

Hacjivah Dayimani – Stormers

Dayimani, who recently signed a new contract with the Stormers, has been one of the best players in the Champions Cup after delivering several outstanding performances for the men from the Cape as they made their charge towards the round of 16. Blessed with the pace of a backline player, the back-row has wreaked havoc with ball in hand and provided headaches to opposing defences.

The 25-year-old played mostly as a flanker during the Stormers’ triumphant URC campaign in 2021/22 but was moved to number eight after Evan Roos was sidelined while on duty for the Springboks against England at Twickenham late last year. That was a masterstroke from Stormers’ head coach, as Dayimani has been one of the team’s standout performers.

Apart from his brilliance with ball in hand, he is also handy as a lineout option as he wins his fair share of possession at the back of the set-piece. His brilliance at the base of the scrum gives his side valuable momentum on attack, and with Roos returning from injury in their recent victory against Clermont, it will be interesting to see if the Stormers will continue with Dayimani at number eight or whether they will shift him to the side of the scrum to make way for Roos.

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