After a sleepy, Springbok-less start to the United Rugby Championship, the South Africans soon came to the party. In scalping seemingly invincible Leinster and high-flying Ulster in the semi-finals, the Bulls and Stormers made the inaugural showpiece in stunning fashion, with the Capetonians claiming the trophy on the home soil.
It was a frustrating season for the Irish heavyweights – particularly Leinster, who end it bereft of silverware. Leo Cullen rotates so prolifically that including Leinster players in a team of the season is tricky. In Scotland, Edinburgh fared well under Mike Blair, but Glasgow were eviscerated in the last eight costing Danny Wilson his job. The Welsh regions were dreadfully underwhelming as another civil war threatens to erupt, while the Italians delivered only in fits and starts.
Little wonder, then, that our URC team of the year is dominated by South African muscle.
15. Warrick Gelant (Stormers)
Such a classy presence in the backfield, Gelant has sparked mesmeric Stormers counters with his vision, speed and intelligence. He sears into the line to add yet more firepower to a backline laden with dynamite, kicks astutely and is excellent under the high ball. Gelant is almost the perfect full-back.
The Bulls brought Kurt-Lee Arendse back from sevens and boy, has he shone with the most hypnotic footwork in the competition. Emiliano Boffelli has been the signing of the season in Scottish rugby.
14. Seabelo Senatla (Stormers)
Retains all the flair and panache of his years on the Sevens World Series, and seems tailor-made for the Stormers’ fabulous running strategy. Senatla shifts like a deer and has lovely hands – he is in the URC’s top 10 for line breaks, tackle breaks, off-loads and metres made, and galloped in for nine tries in 17 matches.
Robert Baloucoune and Jimmy O’Brien had cracking seasons for Ulster and Leinster.
13. James Hume (Ulster)
Hume has been very good for a while now, but this was undoubtedly his finest season to date in an Ulster backline packed with danger. A beautifully balanced runner, he broke tackles and defensive lines for fun, cut smart angles and showcase his footballing acumen.
It is unfair, given his continued form, to call Hume a bolter in Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad. It will be fascinating to see how Farrell uses him, and how Hume fairs, on a punishing summer voyage to New Zealand.
Cornal Hendricks pushed Hume for a spot in this team. The Bulls veteran was almost forced out of the game with a heart problem, but how he is making up for lost time.
12. Damian Willemse (Stormers)
What a piece of attacking weaponry to have in your arsenal. Willemse is the perfect second play-maker. He finally looks to have found a lasting home on a rugby field after several yo-yoing years at 10. In those early seasons, Willemse was seriously maligned by South African fans; a player of such obvious talent who could not fulfil it consistently.
Now, at 12, under the warm management of John Dobson, he is delivering his roaring best. Willemse’s footwork is exceptional, distribution terrific, and he has pace to burn in midfield. He can ease the burden on Manie Libbok inside him in any number of ways.
Thought to be out for the season in early June, his return from injury ahead of schedule played a major role in the Stormers’ title run. Willemse returned with a man-of-the-match showing in the semi-final and was influential in the showpiece itself.
Ulster’s mighty Stuart McCloskey would have a lot more caps were he not competing with Robbie Henshaw and co, and should probably have more in any case.
11. Madosh Tambwe (Bulls)
A desperately close call but Tambwe edges Leolin Zas, the league’s joint-top try-scorer. The Bulls flying machine runs the 100m in 10.3 seconds, and possesses devastating agility even when flat out, propelling him to eight tries (and a fistful more disallowed). He has also proven himself adept in the air when the Bulls go to the skies. Jake White faces a fight to keep one of the most electrifying talents in the tournament amid strong interest from the Top 14.
10. Chris Smith (Bulls)
This felt like a coming-of-age season for Smith, a man who has never truly stamped his authority on a number 10 jersey. With Morne Steyn backing him up, Smith piloted the Bulls to the final as their premier pivot. More of a nuts-and-bolts fly-half than an edge-of-the-seat play-maker, he kicks cleverly, is reliable off the tee, and has unleashed the potent runners outside him to deadly effect.
Ross Byrne had another good campaign, quarterbacking Leinster to the top of the regular-season standings. Manie Libbok and Billy Burns were impressive performers too.
9. Herschel Jantjies (Stormers)
A sprite of a scrum-half who punches well above his weight. Casey can play at furious tempo and is a menace around the base, but his game management has grown this season. A haul of seven tries in 13 matches is very good going and he will push Conor Murray and Jamison Gibson-Park as the World Cup looms.
Herschel Jantjies was a little general for the Stormers, Nathan Doak showed glimpses of his tantalising potential at the Kingspan while Ben Vellacott started Edinburgh’s season superbly before fading a little come the end.
1. Ox Nche (Sharks)
Scrummages, well, like an ox as part of a hulking Sharks pack that will only get scarier when Eben Etzebeth, Carlu Sadie and Vincent Tshituka rock up imminently. The Sharks eight won more scrum penalties than any other side and Nche had a lot to do with that. The loose-head’s carrying is fabled and he ranks highly for dominant tackles.
2. Johan Grobbelaar (Bulls)
A try machine from the back of the Bulls’ fiendishly well-constructed mauls, or from close-range raids, Grobbelaar enjoyed a superb campaign. He was a key cog in a line-out bettered only by Edinburgh’s 92% record, and a bustling presence in the loose. Despite his nine-try haul, it was Grobbelaar’s role as a perpetual breakdown nuisance that was most compelling throughout the season.
Dan Sheehan of Leinster and Glasgow’s Johnny Matthews went well too.
3. Thomas du Toit (Sharks)
It says much about South Africa’s tight-head stocks that Du Toit is probably Jacques Nienaber’s third-choice in the position. It says much about Du Toit that as well as anchoring a titanic Sharks scrum, he made as many tackles as Evan Roos, and more effective defensive ruck hits than anybody else.
Tom O’Toole‘s fine campaign for Ulster was underpinned by similarly impressive stats.
4. Jean Kleyn (Munster)
Another South African, though he is now a fully-fledged Ireland international. Brings the hard edge to the Munster pack with his carrying and heft in the scrummage. Ross Molony of Leinster might have pipped him had he started more than 10 URC matches.
5. Ruan Nortje (Bulls)
Workhorse doesn’t cover it. While the hulking back-rows and dazzling rapiers of the Bulls squad grab the headlines, Nortje has quietly excelled week on week. The Bulls played 21 URC matches on their run to the final, and Nortje started every one. He averages nearly 78 minutes played per game and won the URC’s man of steel award, which honours the player with the greatest game time.
The lock, who turns 24 next month, won a berth in Jacques Nienaber’s squad through his set-piece nous, unrelenting shovel work and slick hands. Ulster tackle machine Alan O’Connor must be one of the most underrated players in the league.
6. Marcell Coetzee (Bulls)
Though he was adored at Ulster, Coetzee was dogged by the perception of inconsistency. People thought he could be too erratic, waxing and waning in the throes of battle. If that perception lingered when Coetzee returned to South Africa, he has fairly smithereened it now.
As captain of Jake White’s well-drilled Bulls, Coetzee set a mighty standard. His work in contact is immense, carrying like a horse and tackling with trademark brutality. He sits joint-top of the try-scoring charts with 11, and top of the dominant hits metric. Nobody made more off-loads either, and that cute subtlety, allied to the physical edge, is Coetzee’s point of difference.
7. Nick Timoney (Ulster)
A back-row who carries prolifically doesn’t tend to post massive tackle stats. Nor does he attack a slew of rucks. Similarly, one who makes a shedload of hits doesn’t typically contribute heaps of carries. That is why Nick Timoney’s numbers are so freakish.
The Ulster flanker is top for tackles (and third for dominant tackles) by a mile, and seventh for breakdown steals. But he is also seventh for carries made and in the top five for attacking and defensive ruck hits. The relentlessness, and quality, of his work with and without the ball set him apart from a clutch of excellent open-sides.
Deon Fourie, in particular, deserves a mention for his brilliant fetching. The league’s top breakdown poacher has earned a Springbok call three months shy of his 37th birthday. Scott Penny was tremendous once again, but must jump a logjam of Irish back-row talent to make his mark internationally.
8. Evan Roos (Stormers)
The outstanding player of the competition. Nobody beat more defenders; nobody earned more metres on the charge. From his 171 carries, Roos averaged nearly 10m gained – a terrific return – and looks every inch to the Test rugby manor born at 22 years old. His try in the final, dynamiting a slew of Bulls heavies from a standing start and stretching out a python-like arm, typified his excellence. A colossus.
Elrigh Louw is a different mould of eight with different attributes, but shone brightly for the Bulls and joins Roos in the Springbok squad. Jack Dempsey was consistently impressive in a fluctuating Glasgow side.