New Super Rugby signings expected to hit the ground running
South African Super Rugby teams the Stormers and the Bulls have both made "emergency" player signings early in the season.
It's the first week in March, and the Stormers and the Bulls are panicking. South Africa's most consistent Super Rugby teams of the past seven years have both made "emergency" signings this week.
The Bulls have contracted loose forwards Wimpie van der Walt and Dewald Potgieter, while the Stormers have signed Samoan wing Sailosi Tagicakibau, and welcomed back their itinerant flyhalf, Peter Grant.
Tagicakibau is not currently a first choice for his English Premiership side, London Irish, and at 31, is making his first foray into Super Rugby since winning seven caps for the Chiefs in 2005.
The last time Tagicakibau was in the news was at the 2011 World Cup, when his younger brother, Michael, played against him for Fiji. Remarkably, in these days of mercenary national recruitment, both brothers were perfectly entitled to their split allegiances, because they have a Fijian father and a Samoan mother.
The other three have all just arrived from Japan, where the season is beginning to wind down, with several teams eliminated from the play-offs and thus carrying excess baggage. Van der Walt, who played well for the Kings in last year's competition, is only on a two-month contract, but perhaps the most interesting signing is that of Potgieter from Yamaha Jubilo.
Poor player treatment
Potgieter (27) is a former Bulls captain, never afraid to shed blood for the cause, who was poorly treated by the union last year. Along with fellow Bulls Boks, Janno Vermaak and Jacques Potgieter (no relation), he was told that the best the union could offer going forward was a 50% pay cut. Not surprisingly, all three chose to move abroad, with Vermaak going to France, Dewald to Japan and Jacques to Australia.
The last-mentioned has been in excellent form with the Waratahs, and is therefore off limits to the Bulls because of the rules of the competition set by Sanzar (South Africa New Zealand Australia Rugby). But the long-term injuries suffered by Pierre Spies and Arno Botha demanded swift remedial action, and it is amusing to estimate the amount of humble pie that had to be consumed by the Bulls representative tasked with speaking to Dewald Potgieter.
It may be that the rules of engagement are in the process of a sea change. Super Rugby franchises and Currie Cup unions have, for the most part, operated hand in hand in the past, with players agreeing to move seamlessly from one competition to the other. But economic realities have set in, and the Currie Cup is going to be the loser.
If you want to know what the future looks like, consider the story of Peter Grant. A Springbok at the age of 23, Grant was the Stormers' first-choice flyhalf, expected to remain loyal to Western Province rugby and available for the Springboks whenever the call came. But the former Maritzburg College pupil saw it differently, especially when his parents decided to emigrate to Australia.
Grant is now ending his fourth season as a full-time rugby player who divides his time between Kobe and Cape Town. When he first made the move to Japan, he must have assumed it would prejudice his position at the Stormers. But he surprised everyone, perhaps himself included, by slotting straight back into the system every year as though he had never been away.
Hitting the books
Last year, he decided to return to the world of education, taking a correspondence course in financial management at the University of Cape Town. Asked why he was doing it, he told the UCT website he was "just stimulating my mind again, which has been on a bit of a holiday for quite some time now".
It's possible to deduce from that remark that Grant is not your run-of-the-mill professional rugby player. Perhaps that explains why the Stormers have taken so much trouble to retain his services.
Grant joined his teammates in Christchurch this week, and was present at what was apparently a farcical training session on Tuesday. With plummeting temperatures, a gale force wind and rain, practice was abandoned after 20 minutes.
The Stormers have a mountain to climb against the seven-times champions, even though the cracks in the edifice are apparent, the Crusaders having already lost to the Chiefs and Blues. But South African wins in Christchurch are as rare as rocking-horse droppings, while the Crusaders have also won three out of their past four encounters with the Stormers in Cape Town.
It would be surprising if the Stormers could shake off a lethargic start to the season, some very un-South African weather and a bad case of jetlag in time to change the trend of history – unless Grant plays out of his socks, of course, although he will have to do so off the bench.
Bulls face the Blues
Elsewhere, the new boys will be expected to hit the ground running for the Bulls, who host the Blues at Loftus. It was possible to see the giant Victor Matfield emerging from his slumber during the win against the Lions, but he will need to drag the rest of his team upwards if they are to beat a Blues outfit that will win more games than it loses this year.
The Lions have the unenviable task of travelling to Durban for the final game of the weekend. The dream start to their season unravelled against the Bulls, but the Lions still managed to give the impression of a well-coached side capable of upsetting a few more apple carts this year.
As for the Sharks, their early bye weekend may have come at the wrong moment, disrupting the momentum of two impressive wins, but if they are truly title contenders, this is the sort of game they need to dominate. That might mean doing a tad more than bashing it up the middle with the likes of Jean Deysel, Willem Alberts and Beast Mtawarira.
The Sharks have many strings to their bow; now is the time to unveil a few.