PRETORIA – Every so often, a player like Marco van Staden comes along and reminds people that the specialist role of a fetching openside flank isn’t yet obsolete in rugby.
The game’s obsession with size pushes players of his disposition to the penumbra. If big, contact-driven ball-carriers were a super size option on most South African coaches’ menus, they would pick that combo every time.
Van Staden who, despite (or maybe because of) his size, has mastered the dark art of playing to the breakdown, is a sabre-toothed Rottweiler that feeds off turnovers. The Bulls No 6 may have missed the opening four weeks of the competition but since his return from a concussion injury, he’s staked a claim for not just his place in the Springbok set-up but for all fetchers around the country.
“I still enjoy being this kind of openside flanker and all that comes with it,” says Van Staden, who converted from hooker to loose-forward in his junior days.
“It fits well with how I’d like to play. It all depends on the coach and what game plans they have but I still think there are teams that use specialist fetchers to create turnovers for them. But then again, a lot of teams look for big, ball-carrying loose-forwards.”
It’s a rather thankless job, that of a fetcher. You only really get recognition when you bail the team out of trouble with a crucial steal but not so much when being a nuisance and slowing opposition ball down, while getting cleaned out viciously by opposition forwards.
Last year, the Springboks went into most of their matches without a starting specialist fetcher but had Francois Louw on the bench, who came on and made a big impact, especially in the semi-final against Wales.
With Louw now retired, Siya Kolisi (captain and regular No 6) injured, a small window has been opened for players of Van Staden’s ilk to squeeze their way back into national colours.
Van Staden was part of the Bok squad right up until the last training camp in Bloemfontein in August before he was released to the Currie Cup, a sure sign that he was not in Erasmus’s Japan plans.
Reflecting on that disappointment, the 24-year-old says perhaps is was not meant to be his time but he unequivocally wants to get back in the Bok mix.
“I just have to have faith that my time will come if I just keep working hard. But you can only control what you can control, so if I play the best Super Rugby I can, then I’ve done my part. The rest is up to them. If the opportunity comes, I have to use it.”
The Bulls are undergoing self-quarantine at the moment, after returning to South Africa from their shortened Australasian tour.
It’s been the kind of season Bulls fans wish they could press the reset button and start over, after beginning with four straight losses and winning one from six so far in this year’s competition. At times they’ve showed enterprise and plenty joie de vivre but it’s been sporadic and not consistent. Van Staden believes this enforced break will give the team time to review their footage and contemplate hard on what they need to do to turn the situation around.
“Even though we can’t train, we can still analyse things. Everyone knows we’ve been struggling this season a bit and we didn’t end things off well before the break but this may well work in our favour, just to help us regroup a bit and to get everyone on the same page again. We know we can play well but there’s just a few things we need to do, like play for 80 minutes and not half that."
The Bulls have looked emaciated on the experience front, especially after losing imposing figures such as RG Snyman, Duane Vermeulen and Lood de Jager. But with the trickle of young talent coming through, Van Staden said this period could turn out to be great for the future of the franchise.