Late 2020 came with a fresh bout of late optimism for the rugby lovers of the Eastern Cape, particularly those from the Eastern Province region. Having just negotiated past a tumultuous period which resulted in the eventual liquidation of the Southern Kings, a previous flagship franchise for the region, a rebranded EP Elephants emerged from the ashes. High profile acquisitions such as British and Irish Lions series winning veteran Springbok Coach Pieter de Villiers, as well as talented yet opportunity deprived flyhalf and would be Captain Innocent Radebe added to the excitement.
A new dawn was most certainly on the horizon, and one that had the Eastern Province rugby faithful licking their lips in anticipation of brighter days. The opportunity to see those brighter days seemed to edge even closer to reality when SARU announced that the troubled union would be given a reprieve with regards to on field matters as well, as they were announced as one of the unions that would partake in the Preparations Series amongst the top unions in the country. But sadly, the liquidation of the Southern Kings coincided with the loss of some of their top talent and the realities of filling their squad with majority club players soon told.
In the aftermath of almost every post match press conference of a tournament the Elephants became the whipping boys of, De Villiers was often driven back into his vintage days, throwing back the clock with his trademark outbursts. What was he most vocal about? Well, predictably the desire to find players of a professional calibre, to help the Elephants be competitive again. So we at Grit Sports, decided to try be good Samaritans to our neighbours and come up with a list of 12 players who the Elephants could possibly loan to help them in this regard.
Okay, maybe we cheated a bit but here is our worthy bonus entry:
Jarrod Taylor* (WP/Flank/lock)
The towering Taylor cuts an intimidating figure beyond his age, and looks like a player who would not look lost in senior rugby. His high profile, yet seemingly controversial move from the Sharks to the Western Province/Stormers initially looked to increase the likelihood of just that as he went straight into training with the Super Rugby Unlocked group. However, the emergence of young locks in that particular tournament as well as the recent signing of Springbok Marvin Orie may well have closed that door for now.
The recent acquisition of Evan Roos on a permanent deal will also, make an impact on his immediate game time, and the 20 year-old could be advised to seek a temporary move to aid his development and what better place to do that than your home province?
Chances rated: The Elephants are desperate for locks and even loose forwards of the former SA Schools star’s ilk, and could provide the perfect environment for him to make steps towards fulfilling his full potential. The Selborne College Old boy has been touted as a future Springbok and would understand that, the sooner he enters the professional scene the better his chances are of wearing that senior Green and Gold jersey and the Elephants would certainly offer him that opportunity week in, week out.
Verdict: Taylor is a player SARU are watching with keen eyes, and they would be hoping for the best with regards to his development. The Elephants may first have to prove that they have their house in order before tempting the abrasive youngster, but either than that it looks realistic and a win/win on paper. (7/10)
12. Clinton Swart (Vodacom Bulls/ Utility back)
The well-travelled Swart maybe a surprise name on the list, and perhaps one possibly rendered unattainable, as having played in Japan and now at the Vodacom Bulls, one would assume he would be used to a big pay day. However, with his ability to play in every backline position, coupled with his experience, the 28-year-old fits the exact mould that the Gqeberha-outfit would be trying to fill. De Villiers had often chopped and changed his youthful backline, week in, week out to no avail, as time after time their lack of experience at that level was exposed.
The lack of “old heads” in the squad was also telling as in the absence of 26 year-old Captain Radebe, it was 24 year-old Courtney Winnaar who took over. Swart would not only be able to fill the experience void, but also be an upgrade to numerous positions in the backline, while being a sound board for young leaders like Radebe and Winnaar.
Chances rated: First, we would have to examine Swart’s current situation at the Bulls. The Barberton-born utility star has not had the impact he was expected to make upon his return to the country, failing to feature enough times to make a significant impression in all three tournaments the Bulls had featured in. What would’ve raised further eyebrows was an honest Jake White admitting to the Bulls App that, with the impending arrival of Johan Goosen,Swart is one of the players that would be in danger of being rendered surplus to requirements.
With murmurs that the Elephants could get a small financial boost, Swart could be an option well worth attempting to lure to Nelson Mandela Bay
Verdict: Makes sense on paper, unlikely to materialize logistically. (4/10)
11. Diego Appollis (Vodacom Bulls/ Centre)
The ex-Garsfontein schoolboy rugby sensation joined the Bulls amidst much fanfare in a move that sparked large controversy as its alleged financial figures were leaked out. Whether that has, or has not played that much of a role in him failing to graduate to the Bulls side, as quickly as what his reputation had promised, only those at Loftus would know. But what us at Grit Sports do know though, is that the Elephants could be the perfect platform to showcase his talents consistently at senior level.
The 21-year-old will be the first to admit that he is now at a potentially decisive age, where one either kicks on to the next level, or sinks and disappears into the dark and lonely corridors of the system and a move to Gqeberha could be the type of ignition he didn’t know his career needed. Most comfortable at inside centre the burly abrasive youngster could offer a significant upgrade for De Villiers, and having represented SA Schools, come through the Bulls Academy and played Supersport Rugby Challenge at 19, he would be coming with a sound development behind him.
Chances rated: Appollis finally started getting game time towards the backend of both the Currie Cup and Preparations Series under White, which may well be a sign of things to come ahead of a potential Rainbow Cup campaign. But with the likes of Van Vuuren, Potgieter and Kellerman all seemingly in front of him, a temporary move away from the Bulls could prove his best chance of regular senior rugby.
Verdict: There may have to be a fair bit of convincing to do, but it does seem possible. (6/10)
10. Lucky Dlepu (Sharks/ Scrumhalf).
It caught many by surprise when the 22-year-old Dlepu completed a move to the Sharks from Western Province in August last year. Besides being in the same age group as the two brightest scrumhalf prospects at not only the Sharks, but South Africa he would also be competing with Grant Williams, who despite being the senior scrumhalf at the union, can’t get into a full strength Sharks team himself.
It seemed as if the Langa-born half back may have left his best prospects of game time in Cape Town, as he seemed to edge ever so closer to the Stormers squad after featuring in Super Rugby warm up games early last year.
It still remains a mystery as to why he would switch the west for the east coast, but that is a move that indicates that he is no short of confidence. That particular confidence is exactly what the Elephants could do with at the base of the scrum. Having played two Craven Weeks and played in the junior national side to add to his years as a development player at WP, he would be adding a sound foundation and would represent a clear upgrade for De Villiers in that position
Chances rated: He is yet to feature for the Sharks side since joining, and he doesn’t seem to be changing the pecking order currently either. An opportunity away from the arguably over stocked scrumhalf department of the Sharks, may just be what he needs to launch his career. He would be an almost guaranteed starter for the Elephants and would get an extended period to test himself at a senior level.
Verdict: It makes sense for both parties and if the young man wants to keep his career ticking and continue developing, should this offer present itself, it should be a no-brainer for the two parties. Very possible! (8/10)
9. Janko Swanepoel (Vodacom Bulls/ Lock)
The lanky lock Swanepoel started to become a fixture in Jake White’s sides towards the backend of the Currie Cup, and seemed to gain many plaudits for his performances. The former SA U20 star, did a more than commendable job filling in for the Bulls during what seems like a lock crisis at the union. With those performances, he may have been able to convince Jake White that his long term future is indeed at Loftus Versfeld. But what does his situation look like in the interim?
Chances rated: With a plethora of lock options such as Sintu Manjezi and Walt Steenkamp still said to be unavailable to White, Swanepoel’s chances may arguably never be higher to make the main Bulls matchday squad. It is to Grit Sports understanding, however, that new acquisition Jacques du Plessis is set to be deployed at number 4 lock at least until the situation eases up. It would then be expected that Swanepoel would stick around and continue to be a valuable member of White’s side, and provide capable cover in that position.
The situation after the Rainbow Cup, however, may prove the most telling as when a full complement of locks return, the realities of where he is in the pecking order may make him open to considering a temporary switch, and the Elephants could provide the perfect platform for his growth. The Bulls will be able to test his mettle in a team that is expected to be fighting for 80 minutes, and such a move could give the Durbanville-born player the opportunity to become a “big fish in a small pond”.
Verdict: It is perhaps very unlikely that a junior international who is clearly touted for bigger things, would consider moving to a union that still needs to prove it has it’s house in order. But if the right influences on either side can whisper the right things to Swanepoel then who knows? Maybe the man who has been called the “Next Victor Matfield” could find himself along the Gqeberha coastline. (4/10)
8. Ali Vermaak (Stormers/loosehead prop).
The Stormers prop, is now reaching veteran age as his 32nd birthday edges closer, and although John Dobson has spoken highly of him of late, the union’s decision to offer new deals to the younger generation of props at their disposal may signal the direction they wish to go in.
Vermaak is part of a loaded prop department at the Stormers, with looseheads including World Cup winning Springbok and skipper Steven Kitshoff, Kwenzo Blose and Leon Lyons to mention but three, and having not really commanded the number one jersey since arriving in Cape Town from Gqeberha and making his senior debut 10 years ago. It may now prove to be the perfect time for De Villiers to tempt the former Hantie Cilliers scholar back home, to add some much needed weight and experience to his front row charges.
Chances rated: With the young charges ahead of him getting contract extensions it remains to be seen what the future may hold long term for the former South African Universities representative. Speaking of “representative”. If De Villiers can get ahold of Vermaak’s representatives and put in a solid case of similar ilk, this could be one of the most probable loan deals on this list.
Verdict: It makes so much sense from both parties, and the fact that he is originally from Gqeberha increases those chances ever so slightly. (9/10)
7. Asenathi Ntlabakanye (Lions/ tighthead prop)
Former junior international prop Asenathi Ntlabakanye announced himself to the world with some great performances at the 2018 World Junior Rugby Championships, as he formed part of the bronze medal winning side in France. He was expected to kick on from there, but for one reason or another his trajectory seemed to have slowed down.
The 21-year-old made an encouraging appearance in the senior fold, towards the backend of the Preperations Series, starting the Lions’ final game against the Stormers in Cape Town. However, it now remains to be seen if, he will remain part of the main group especially with veteran World Cup winning Springbok prop Jannie du Plessis not getting any younger, or that will be as good as it gets for the former St. Stithians scholar.
Chances rated: Regardless of du Plessis situation going forward, 23-year-old Carlu Sadie seems to be the incumbent for that number three jersey at Emirates Air Line Park, with Ruan Dreyer fighting back too. At his age, Ntlabakanye could be tempted by a loan move that could afford him an extended senior rugby run, and a return to his home province could prove very appealing. He would most likely become first choice should he move to Gqeberha and a key player too.
Verdict: The Lions might not want to give up on his prodigious talents yet, and nor might he want to give up his chances of playing at the highest level either. But a temporary move can edge both parties ever so closer to that goal. (8/10)
6. Mnombo Zwelendaba (Stormers/Centre)
The Selborne College Old Boy’s call up to the Springbok Green vs Gold showdown, coupled with his recent involvement in the Stormers side, seem to signal that he is prodigious prospect on the rise. The 21-year-old had been named in a couple of matchday squads for the Stormers/WP but is yet to make a mark or become a permanent fixture in those squads as of yet.
At his relative young age, there is no considerable rush for him to fulfil all of his obvious potential overnight, but the former junior international will know firsthand the importance of getting senior rugby under his belt during this period of his development. Rikus Pretorious seems to have nailed down Zwelendaba’s preferred number 12 jersey as of yet, with the likes of Daniel du Plessis and Cornel Smit also two senior options seemingly ahead of him.
Chances rated: As highly rated as Zwelendaba is, Dobson has seemingly shown his hand with regards to his preferred pecking order at 12. It could prove an uphill battle for the former SA schools player to force himself into the conversation just yet, and a temporary move back to his home province could just be the reprieve his career needs.
Verdict: This is another of the deals that seem beneficial to both parties and one of the more realistic ones on the list. More game time, senior rugby development and a return to familiar surrounding while learning from a former Springbok mentor? (8/10)
5. Roelof Smit (Lions/Openside flank)
There is no doubting the abilities of the Komani-born fetcher, and his appearance from the start in the Lions maiden Preparations Series win over the Pumas, was perhaps yet another show of faith from the Johannesburg-based rugby union’s management. Unfortunately for the former Bulls player, his injury curse would prove to still be very much alive, as he left that game with what proved to be yet another long term setback.
Smit, however, seems like a very determined character who’s mental toughness cannot be doubted, so he would probably feel like he can still come back and rediscover the form that earned him a Springbok call up to the 2016 end of year tour. However, the reality is that, at 28 he is not a youngster anymore and with each passing injury a new player comes in to solidify their claim for the jersey.
Chances rated: A positive for the former junior Springbok is that, he seems to still maintain the confidence of the coaching staff, which has been signaled by his immediate selection upon his recent return. Reality, however, is that Jaco Kriel and Marnus Scheoman seem to be ahead of him in the pecking order. To further compound his misery, his recent set back may have even allowed highly rated former junior Springbok Sibusiso Sangweni the opportunity to also leapfrog him in the pecking order.
Verdict: Maybe after all these injuries, a change of scenery and a temporary return to his home province could finally break the curse for the former Hoerskool Hangklip cult hero. He would provide solid competition and could even play together with CJ Velleman as a 6/8 pairing. It would take some convincing because of his reputation but it could certainly suit all parties. (6/10)
4. Jacques Goosen (Sharks/ hooker)
Touted as a Springbok in waiting, the last SA Schools Captain, Goosen’s name rang and echoed extensively in the realm of schoolboy rugby in the Border region, and with some bulldozing performances at his two Craven Weeks, that reputation extended to a national scale. The powerfully built youngster’s u19 year at Sharks was not only curtailed by the pandemic last year, but a long-term shoulder injury that needed medical procedures, but has since come back strong for the Durban outfits u20 side so far this season.
The feeling, however, is that the try-machine may have outgrown his age group, and even though many would’ve liked to see him fast tracked by the Sharks, considering their travails at hooker in recent years, union sources have informed Grit Sport that, it might not happen anytime soon. That could leave the abrasive star in a precarious position of being too good for age group rugby, but also not yet ready to make the step up to the Sharks senior side. But that, by no means indicates he isn’t good enough to make the step up to senior rugby at all, with the Elephants perhaps the perfect gap bridger.
Chances rated: A move closer to home, which would afford him more senior rugby playing time could really be appealing to Goosen on his quest to fulfilling his full potential. The Kings have struggled with their hookers, with Sthembiso Befile, the most promising often left on the bench in baffling fashion. Goosen, could potentially offer an upgrade but most importantly the duo can share the work load while learning from each other with the Elephants in turn, being the biggest beneficiaries.
Verdict: Like Swanepoel, it would again be a case of, would a player touted as a future Bok be willing to sacrifice a well-oiled, and professionally ran union, for one that still has to prove they’re successfully rebuilding something sustainable? If the new Sharks owners are serious about their plans to aid rugby in the Eastern Cape they could play a huge role in convincing the Selborne College Old Boy. Another potential attraction for him would be reuniting with his “terrible twin” Taylor if the Elephants could pull that rabbit out the hat too, then it could be game on! (7/10)
3. Uzile Tele (Vodacom Bulls/Flank/Lock)
The Hudson Park High School product made his senior bow for the Bulls against the EP Elephants, coming off the bench to replace fellow East London-schooled Tim Agaba in the Preperations Series. However, the 21-year-olds fortunes seem to have changed, as he has recently been spotted wearing the colours of the Shimlas during the current Varsity Cup, in a move that has caught many by surprise and raised a few eyebrows.
Chances rated: It seems to be clear what profile of loose forward is preferred at the Bulls and also by White at senior level. The latest developments in Tele’s career would have one thinking, he may not particularly fit the mould, or perhaps had been advised to go get regular rugby elsewhere in the interim. If that is the case, home could well be where the heart is for Middledrift-born player, as he could return to his native province to gain some invaluable senior experience.
Verdict: Tele played lock to such great effect at the 2018 Craven Week, he made SA Schools in that position. The Elephants are desperate for capable reinforcements in that position and should he return to the province and to that position with similar displays, it could rebrand his whole career going forward. Another attainable seeming deal. 8/10
2. Sihle Njezula (Stormers/ Wing)
A lot was expected from the former Grey High
School pupil, Njezula after he starred for the Baby Boks in their bronze medal winning 2018 campaign. However, things have not quite progressed as swiftly for the stocky winger in terms of senior rugby at the Western Province/ Stormers despite being around their Super Rugby set up since 2019. He finally got his maiden appearance for the main group however, with a decent performance against the Griquas during the Preparations series.
That would prove to be his sole appearance, unfortunately, as regular senior stars Seabelo Senatla and fellow Old Grey Boy Sergeal Pietersen returned to action. That in turn, relegated Njezula back to the sidelines which could’ve been another reality check of just how tough the competition remains ahead of him, making a temporary move a decent option, especially en-route familiar territory.
Chances rated: It is clear that there is strong competition ahead of Njezula, just as much clear as it is to see he is a genuine talent. But at the age of 23, that stalemate will probably need to be broken soon as he reaches “now or never” territory. The EP Elephants project could prove appealing to the former SA Schools player and most likely more so, should they secure the services of most of the players on this list.
Verdict: A strong year away from Cape Town, proving to the coaches at the Stormers exactly why they haven’t pulled the plug on him already may just be the kick start his senior career needs. Being familiar with Gqeberha and having represented EP at school level could provide the extra push this deal could need. (8/10)
1. Celimpilo Gumede (Sharks/ loose
The young Sharks loose forward is one of a plethora of prodigious talents touted for international honours, on the books of the East Coast union. That has often been illustrated by the number of times the 20-year-old has been included in various senior matchday squads, including making more frequent starts during the Preparations Cup where got a taste of senior rugby which he would not want to relinquish.
However, with the recent addition of World Cup winning Springbok captain Siya Kolisi to bolster an already healthy loose forward department at the Sharks, Gumede’s senior minutes may be cut even further this year. The Sharks clearly hold him in high regards, and so do SARU but that tag alone won’t be enough to help continue his development, game time will, and with that expected to come few and far between for him in Durban, a temporary move away may be the best option for all parties involved.
Chances rated: The Durban High School Old Boy would be the first to notice just how daunting his task has become at the Sharks, but he would only have to ask Lukhanyo Am about just how much a good season in Gqeberha can do to change your fortunes in Durban. The promise of regular game time in a squad filled with other top youngsters and familiar faces could be very appealing to the former Baby Bok.
Verdict: He needs senior game time, the Elephants could use a capable eighthman and loose forwards in general, especially those with as much steel as well as mobility as Gumede and this could be a match made in heaven, at least for one year. (7/10)
Look out for part two of this series as we list and discuss some free agents and other players who maybe convenient but capable additions to the Elephants ranks.