1. Handré Pollard
Despite losing his Springbok flyhalf berth to Pat Lambie during the end-of-year European tour, Pollard is undoubtedly a player for the future. He stormed on to the scene in the final rounds of last season’s Rugby Championship, and his eye for a gap, safe pair of hands and willingness to hit the advantage line haven’t suddenly deserted him because he was perhaps unfairly maligned for the Boks’ undercooked performance against Ireland.
Although Lambie’s the incumbent – and deservedly so – Pollard’s day will surely dawn. There are even Bulls fans who are suggesting a Bok halfback combination of Pollard and Fourie du Preez for this year’s World Cup – and they’re not being ironic.
2. Rivaldo Coetzee
Eyebrows were raised when Bafana Bafana coach Shakes Mashaba gave Coetzee his international debut as a 17-year-old last October.
If that wasn’t enough, the match was a vital African Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifier in the Congo-Brazzaville town of Pointe-Noire, a venue with all kinds of unpleasant memories for Bafana, dating back to a brutal game there in 1998.
Mashaba’s courage was vindicated when Coetzee came through the match with his reputation enhanced, as Bafana won 2-0, putting the Noire hoodoo to bed. The laaitie breathed many sighs of relief, admitting afterwards that he had considered asking his coach to change his mind because he was so nervous. He was pleased that he didn’t.
According to Roger de Sá, Coetzee’s coach at Ajax Cape Town, he always knew the youngster was destined to handle things at international level.
“I was more concerned when he made his debut for his club,” said De Sá.
3. Lee-Anne Pace
Winner of last year’s South African Open at San Lameer and a prestigious event in the “Asian Swing” on Hainan Island in China, Pace is arguably the hottest property in local women’s golf since Sally Little.
Pace needed to come from, well, off the pace, to win the South African Open, forcing a play-off with England’s Holly Clyburn, but the event in China on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour was significantly higher profile. Not only did it earn the “Birdie Queen” R3.3-million in winnings, it also gave her a huge injection of confidence.
“I think the win is pretty big for South African women’s golf,” she said at the time. “We are definitely on the up.”
At 33, Pace has made her mark but nevertheless campaigned uncomplainingly overseas for much of the second half of last year. The win in China could well be more significant than she ever imagined.
4. Simon Magakwe
Last year was one of incremental gains for the sprinter. His eyes are now set firmly on qualifying for the Olympics in Rio next year.
His times came down, he campaigned in the Diamond League series in Europe and the United States, and generally found that his exposure to the world’s best was positive and inspirational.
Having narrowly missed out on qualifying for the London Olympics in 2012, Magakwe has much to look forward to. That this will be a make-or-break year seems to be something the 28-year-old champion is well aware of.
“I have been learning from watching some of the guys that I competed against and I think that will make me better,” said the only South African sprinter ever to have broken through the 10-second barrier for the 100m.
5. Eric Mathoho
The lanky Venda-born defender is as thin as a mealie stalk, but don’t let first impressions fool you. He always looked the business when he was campaigning at the unfashionable Bloem Celtic, but really caught the eye when transferred to the more glamorous Kaizer Chiefs.
Solid, uncompromising and surprisingly deft on the ball for such a tall man, Mathoho hasn’t got the plaudits he deserves for his sentry-like marshalling of the Bafana Bafana defence now that they have qualified for the Afcon finals in Equatorial Guinea.
His goalkeeper, the late Senzo Mewiya, sometimes used to flap about behind him but Mathoho carried on regardless, protecting him, marshalling his fellow defenders and being instrumental in ensuring that, in their first four Afcon qualifiers, Bafana didn’t concede a goal. Much has been written about Bafana’s midfield dynamos, Dean Furman and Andile Jali, but Mathoho has kept things clean and safe at the back. No wonder his nickname is “Tower”.
6. Myles Brown
According to no less an authority than Ryk Neethling, Brown (22) is one of the few swimmers currently active in the country who has a realistic opportunity of grabbing a medal at the Rio Olympics next year other than those already known, such as Chad le Clos.
A freestyle swimmer from KwaZulu-Natal, by his own admission Brown had a disappointing Commonwealth Games in 2014, although Neethling firmly believes he has what it takes to do well in the pool this year and next.
Brown trains at the Seagulls club in Pinetown under the watchful eyes of coaches Doreen and Graham Hill (the latter is the South African team’s recently appointed head coach). His biggest challenge with Brown is not technical but temperamental: the youngster admitted after Glasgow that he gets nervous before racing and needs to learn how to relax. Conquering his anxiety might just be the key to unlocking major international success.
7. Kagiso Rabada
Barely out of St Stithians College, Rabada first shot to prominence when playing for South Africa under-19 in the junior World Cup in March. His six for 25 against Australia under-19 in the semifinal catapulted South Africa into the final, where they duly swept past young Pakistan. The Aussie match was televised and with it Rabada’s stellar performance, so everyone in local cricket was suddenly sitting up and taking notice.
Long-limbed, with an easy action and surprisingly good control, Rabada has been turning out for his home franchise, the Lions, this season. He hasn’t looked overawed at playing alongside household names such as Neil McKenzie and Lonwabo Tsotsobe – indeed, he has appeared to thrive in the exalted company, fast proving to be an important member in a very handy Lions bowling attack.
More than talent and being photogenic, Rabada has one other priceless asset: he’s level-headed.
He will need to be as SA Cricket searches for a marquee black player to step into the vacuum left by Makhaya Ntini.
8. Dawie van der Walt
Now a resident of Kingwood, Texas, South Africans stood up and took notice when the former Paarl boy played in the Nedbank Classic at Sun City at the end of last year.
Van der Walt’s place in the event was no fluke but rather an expression of his growing stature worldwide. He was the Sunshine Tour’s Order of Merit winner in 2013 and last year played in one of the longest play-offs in golf history when he lost the Cleveland Open over 11 excruciating holes to the Kiwi Steven Alker.
A large man, Van der Walt gives the ball one almighty thump. He’s a comparative golf rookie at 31 but the coming years might just see him join the illustrious company of South African golf’s aristocracy.
9. Stephen Coppinger
Squash player Coppinger had a fine 2013, breaking into the world top 20, a rare feat for a South African.
His spike in form has softened slightly – he now finds himself ranked 21 in the world – although he is slowly becoming a name that those outside of the squash cognoscenti recognise.
Born in Dublin, Coppinger’s family lived in Kenya for many years, and he was generally the kind of kid who played most sports, but particularly squash, from an early age. Indeed, his first squash memory is of playing as a junior at Kenya’s “Coastal Open” in Mombasa aged seven.
Coppinger studied at Hilton College in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and went on to do a degree in mathematical engineering, more, as he admits, as a pastime than anything else.
Go on to YouTube and watch any of his games against high-ranked opposition and you realise just how good this slightly goofy right-hander is. With a long reach and an enviably deft touch around the nick, he does things on court we week-night hackers can only dream of.
10. Lebo Phalula
Almost a cult athlete in certain circles for her habit of running barefoot, the long-legged middle-distance athlete divides opinion about how much she has really achieved in what is now a long career (she turned 31 last month).
She once seemed to be a star in the making but her choice of roadrunning and the lucrative rewards that go with it has been at the expense of a more technically satisfying career on the track.
Still, there are those who will see this as quibbling. She remains a much-loved feature of the women’s roadrunning scene in this country at a time when black role models in the sport are rare.
11. Theunis de Bruyn
A tallish, right-handed batsman, De Bruyn has been a key part of Tukkies’ successful first XI for a number of years. The university have been national club champions for the past three, and last winter they won the Red Bull Campus Cricket finals at the Oval in London, making them the best T20 university team in the world.
Having climbed the lower rungs of the cricket ladder, it was only a matter of time before De Bruyn was drafted into the Titans senior side. He played the odd game for them last season but this season he has really announced his talent.
He has scored runs in the Sunfoil Series and in the Momentum One-Day Cup, most notably a whirlwind 108 (in 90 balls) against the Dolphins on his home patch. Although the Titans lost that game, De Bruyn had arrived. The match was televised on SuperSport, so beaming his name into thousands of homes. Commentator Robin Jackman was heard to remark that De Bruyn could be destined for bigger things. It doesn’t get better than that.
12. Dean Furman
Watching the former Camps Bay boy at work in the heart of Bafana Bafana’s midfield suggests nothing as much as a well-designed appliance. There’s nothing superfluous to Furman’s game, nothing too ambitious or overly flashy.
But can the boy do a job! Whether the Doncaster Rovers and former Oldham Athletic midfielder is getting things moving with neat passes forward or breaking up opposition attacks, Furman is a vital component of the Bafana machine. Coach Mashaba clearly likes what he brings to the national side and the man’s heart for a scrap is immense. He keeps on running and there’s a little mongrel in him, too, as he’s suddenly given the national side a little snap.
There are more gifted ball players around but Furman is no stranger to the clever pass when it counts: think the deft ball that led to Bafana’s second goal against Congo-Brazzaville in Pointe-Noire, the score that in effect settled the tie in the visitors’ favour.
Should he continue playing with such aplomb, 2015 will be an immense year for the 26-year-old now that Bafana have qualified for Afcon.
13. Kevin Lerena
A young man who clearly has enough belief in his talent to brush aside a potentially lucrative rugby contract at the Golden Lions, Lerena decided instead to throw his lot in with pro boxing. His decision would have appeared to have been vindicated when, in September last year, he knocked out the Georgian Gogita Gorgiladze at Emperors Palace in the fourth round of their cruiserweight bout, thus claiming the World Boxing Council youth title. Not too shabby for a 22-year-old.
The boxer attracted what for many would have been unwelcome publicity in the Oscar Pistorius case for being the guy who almost got his foot shot off by Pistorius’s loaded gun in a packed Melrose Arch restaurant, a situation the young cruiserweight seemed to exploit to the full.
Away from what happens beneath patrons’ tables at upmarket eateries, Lerena is powerfully built and has quick hands, both vital ingredients for a happening cruiserweight. Unbeaten after 11 professional fights, 2015 could see this young member of the famous horseracing family extend his growing reputation.
14. Grace Legote
This young rhythmic gymnast from Delareyville in North West wowed television viewers everywhere with her routines at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last year.
She didn’t claim a medal but she must have taken satisfaction from the fact that she spent far more time on the world’s television screens than some of the competition’s more favoured contenders.
Legote is young (22) and tiny (45kg) and has some way to go before she starts winning medals at major international events. This said, she’s photogenic, knows how to capture the heart of an audience, and will only grow smarter, wiser and more accomplished as she gets older.
15. Luvo Manyonga
The gifted long jumper was on the cusp of going into rehabilitation for his self-confessed tik habit at the time of going to press.
John McGrath, Manyonga’s Irish coach, said: “I would prefer if he left the Western Cape entirely and went into rehab upcountry somewhere but you know how it is, people promise money and it’s sometimes a little slow to arrive.”
Should the plan to place Manyonga in rehabilitation be successful, there is a further plan to pay for him to spend six months in Cuba to train for the 2016 Olympics.
Cuba has a well-established culture of long jumping and McGrath believes he has the potential to win an Olympic long-jump medal.
Will 2015 be Manyonga’s year? There are more than a few people who hope that the youngster from Mbekweni near Paarl can turn it all around.