Phepsi Buthelezi, Evan Roos and Elrigh Louw will all play for the Springboks at some stage, and while there was for a long time no clear successor to Duane Vermeulen, South African rugby has been blessed with three young brutes and Jasper Wise to take the reigns, writes Oliver Keohane.
One certainty in South African rugby will always be the number of quality loose forwards at the disposal of not only the national coach, but essentially every provincial union in South Africa.
But even by South African standards, the quality of player that the last two years has presented as possible successors to Duane Vermeulen is astounding.
In the absence of Vermeulen over the British & Irish Lions series, Jasper Wiese stepped into the Test arena with a huge responsibility to carry, and he carried it with a mixture of composure and aggression that delivered on all the promise he showed in the Premiership, playing for Leicester Tigers.
Wiese remained a regular fixture within the squad over the Rugby Championship, and while moments of brilliance were mixed with ill discipline and occasional poor decision making, we must not forget that the comparison has been of a 25 year old Wiese with a 35 year old Vermeulen. Vermeulen, like Wiese, debuted at 25 and was by no means the player he is now, back in 2012. Wiese has all the qualities to grow into Vermeulen’s role, but he must be allowed to grow.
Beyond Wiese though, there exists a special set of youngsters who have burst onto the scene at similar ages, showing similar talent and consistently performing every week. The added bonus besides their potential as new Springbok loose forwards is that they each play for three of the four unions that represent South Africa in the United Rugby Championship.
Phepsi Buthelezi at just 22 years old has already captained the Sharks against the British & Irish Lions – an achievement that many a great player will never record in his rugby career. Though Buthelezi led a charge in vein, he still managed to be a standout on days where his side lost 54-7 initially and then a couple of days later 71-31, after an implosion from scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse left the already Springbok-less Sharks with 14 men.
It is not often that much can be made of any individual in the wake of such heavy defeats, but in the case of Buthelezi there was aggression and go forward with every carry he made, and a consistent presence around the field despite the size of the defeat that has side was being subjected to. Against the Lions, Buthelezi showed such leadership at such a young age, but such hunger and determination too. He has been brilliant year round for the Sharks though, and has also immediately stepped up to the new challenge of the Rugby Championship.
Further down West and a year Buthelezi’s junior, ex-Paarl Boys brute Evan Roos has been making waves in South African rugby playing for the Stormers and Western Province, and his Currie Cup form had many calling for Springbok inclusion towards the end of the Lions Tour and beginning of the Rugby Championship. Like Buthelezi, Roos was equally noticeable in his efforts against the touring British & Irish Lions, despite the Stormers going down 49-3.
Roos, though he can play at flank and has been used at lock, is an out and out number 8 by South African description. Physically, he is reminiscent of ex-Springbok eighthman Pierre Spies, and while he’s shown huge strength in collisions he possesses a great turn of pace too. Though Roos has all the physical attributes to dominate, it is the attitude and the intent with which he plays that allows him to do so too. Many players have had the look, had the physical stats, but not had the ticker to take it further than superficial potential. Roos has already shown that he has what it takes, and it is known that while he has not yet appeared in a Springbok jersey, he is on the international radar.
And then of course, the Bulls have their own 22 year old beast, Elrigh Louw, who coach Jake White has described as being in the mould of Springbok great Juan Smith. White has said before that it is not a matter of if but when Louw plays for the Springboks, and at 6ft5 and 112 kilograms, he has played across the back row and at lock.
All three players can play on the flank, and Roos and Louw have been used at lock, but all three continue to be all class at number 8. The presence of three potential eighthman successors (besides of course Wiese) is new and exciting for South African Rugby, who in the Vermeulen era have not yet had another player making a case to claim the eighthman spot.
A note must also be made of former Stormers number 8 Juarno Augustus, who debuted in the Premiership for Northampton Saints late last month. While many tipped Augustus to step into the Springbok mix quickly, the transition from junior to senior level has not been as smooth as expected. Regardless, it is only good for South African rugby to have him playing again and potentially growing into his role abroad.
As Vermeulen begins to wind down his international career, the promise of these young men, all in their early 20s, is a huge positive for a Springbok side that will have a huge hole to fill.
You can only judge a player on their last performance, and one can only speculate about international ability until that player is picked and performs. But Buthelezi, Roos and Louw, through every one of their domestic performances, continue to give the South African public and coaches reasons to speculate about the future role that they may play at the back of the Springbok scrum.
WATCH: Buthelezi against the British & Irish Lions
WATCH: Roos’ Stormers highlights
WATCH: Elrigh Louw highlights