Tag Archives: South African

Who Is Gerhard Van Den Heever?

Van den Heever

Gerhard Van den Heever. (c) Stomers Rugby.

Born in Bloemfontein, van den Heever traveled the 425 kilometres to Pretoria for his schooling at the famous Affies high school. With an alumni including Fourie du Preez, Pierre Spies and Leinster’s Quinn Roux, Affies offers one of the best rugby educations in South Africa.

Van den Heevers’s rugby potential was spotted by the Blue Bulls and he represented them at the U16 Grant Khomo week in 2005. The following two years saw Van den Heever making the natural progression to the Academy Week (U18 secondary National competition) in 2006 and finally the 2007 Craven Week, which represents the peak of South African schools rugby. The Bloemfontein flyer didn’t make the international schools team, but his future with the Bulls was secure.

Van den Heever finished out 2007 out by playing for the Bulls in the ABSA U19 competition. 2008 was spent playing Varsity Cup rugby for the University of Pretoria (‘Tuks’), earning him selection for the inaugural World University Championship Rugby Sevens in Spain. He furthered his reputation at the Bulls with another outstanding campaign in the ABSA U19 competition.

2009 was an important developmental year in Van den Heever’s career. In February, he made his first Vodacom Cup appearance for the Bulls, starting on the wing. Two weeks later, a broken hand for Bryan Habana catapulted Van den Heever into the Bulls’ Super Rugby team for their derby with the Stormers. Still only 19, the pacy winger acquitted himself well and went on to make two more starts before Habana returned. Van den Heever scored his first senior try for the Bulls in a 36-12 loss to the Highlanders.

Habana’s recovery meant the youngster dropped out of the match day squad, but his star had been marked. In June, he traveled to the Junior World Championship with a CJ Stander-captained South Africa, scoring three tries in four games as the Baby ‘Boks finished third. Van den Heever was an unstoppable boulder of form at this stage and returned home to be a star of the 2009 Currie Cup, scoring 11 tries in 13 starts on the wing.

(c) SA Rugby.

The Bulls won the Currie Cup that season, but Van den Heever was unlucky to be benched for the knock-out stages as the big names of Habana and Francois Hougaard were drafted in. Instead, Van den Heever dropped back to the Bulls U21 side for their Currie Cup final against Western Province. The 6ft 3ins wide man scored two tries with practically his only touches of the game to round off an incredible year.

Habana’s move to the Stormers at the start of 2010 meant that there was finally a spot in the Bulls’ Super 14 team for the wonderkid. Van den Heever began the season as he intended to go on, scoring a try in a 51-34 win over the Cheetahs. From then on he was undroppable, starting all but two of the Bulls’ 15 games en route to winning the competition. Van den Heever’s eight tries (including this spectacular effort) left him just one behind top scorers Joe Rokocoko and Drew Mitchell.

The 21-year-old’s excellent form continued in the Currie Cup, with 15 starts and 5 tries as the Bulls relinquished their title in a semi-final loss to Natal. Overall, it was an incredible season for the young winger and, amidst the hype, Van den Heever was being talked about as a possible Springbok. Another good season in 2011 would possibly have led to an international call-up.

But after the peak of 2009 and 2010 has come something of an extended trough for Van den Heever. His nickname at the Bulls was ‘Shadow’ due to his extreme pace but ironically his form has gradually become a shadow of that 2010 season.

In 2011, he made 14 appearances but only scored three tries as the Bulls failed to make the play-offs in the re-structured Super Rugby. It was far from a vintage season for Frans Ludeke’s side and despite starting with a bang, Van den Heever’s form suffered. In that season’s Currie Cup the Bulls struggled again, missing out on the playoffs. Van den Heever made seven starts but managed just one try. The Bulls style of play in 2011 meant Van den Heever saw less of the ball, and his form dropped away.

Van den Heever in action for the Stormers. (c) Paul Barnard.

After a year in which he and the Bulls hadn’t sparked, Van den Heever decided to make a move to the Stormers in Cape Town on a two-year deal. A strange transfer, considering that Habana and Gio Aplon were already established there as first choice wingers. Van den Heever had to be content with warming the bench for much of the 2012 season. He played 15 times (7 starts) and scored a solitary try in round 16. In the Currie Cup, he started all 12 games as Western Province won the competition, but dotted down just twice.

That brings us to the 2013 season, where Van den Heever made 11 appearances (3 starts) as the Stormers missed out on the Super Rugby playoffs. He began the season on the bench again, but an injury to Habana saw him start twice in March before suffering an injury himself. After recovering, Van den Heever was back riding pine. He scored one try in the 2013 Super Rugby season.

I watched Van den Heever in the games he started against the Brumbies in round six, and the Crusaders in round seven. The first thing that struck me was the size of the 24-year-old. At 6ft 3ins and around 100kg, he is in the George North-mould of large wingers. At that size, he’s obviously strong and he often beat the first defender when in possession. He has quick feet for a tall guy and that means he doesn’t run directly into defenders too often.

Van den Heever looked to be solid under the high ball. He has a good leap and with his height advantage he can win attacking kicks and re-starts. Against the Crusaders, the Stormers looked for Van den Heever from the re-starts and he won possession back twice. However, those were the occasions when the winger was in the right place. His reactions and anticipation can be slow. Great players are always in the right place, but Van den Heever wasn’t consistently well positioned.

He was forced to kick twice over the course of the two games and looked uncomfortable doing so. That looks like an area where Munster will need to do some work. Also, his technique at the breakdown is likely to be addressed. Van den Heever looked happy to just add his weight to the ruck, rather than clearing past the ball or counter-rucking. Obviously this is not a winger’s priority, but it’s a necessity for every player.

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Off the bench against the Blues in 2012. (c) Paul Barnard.

Van den Heever’s greatest asset is his searing pace. He is one of the quickest wingers South Africa has produced, and a quick search on Youtube will tell you all you need to know. That speed combined with his footwork make him a threat whenever he gets the ball, but I felt that he could have been far more involved. Pacy players are the ones you look to for a spark, but Van den Heever didn’t provide that in either game.

The 24-year-old scored against the Brumbies from an intercept, but apart from that only touched the ball when it was kicked to him or spread wide to his wing. He never came off the touchline looking for work. Having spoken to a few journalists in South Africa, this would be their main concern about Van den Heever. The perception is that he can be one-dimensional and unwilling to get himself involved at crucial times in games.

Defensively, Van den Heever is a good one-on-one tackler. He didn’t miss a tackle in either of the games I watched, but neither did he make a dominant tackle. If he’s going to replace Doug Howlett with conviction, he will need to use that huge frame of his to make an impact on defence. Again, the feeling is that Van den Heever is happy to just do enough to get by. He didn’t go looking for a big defensive play, or to use his power to smash attackers.

With his pace, size, strength, ability in the air, and still being just 24, Van den Heever can definitely offer Munster something they don’t have in the back three. He is not the finished article but the move to Ireland could be just the motivation he needs to start showing that incredible form of 2010 again. His size and speed make him an exciting prospect and it will be fascinating to watch his progress at Munster.

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Photos: Paul Barnard.

Who is CJ Stander?

(c) Blue Bulls.

Munster look to have pulled off quite a coup by securing CJ Stander on a two-year deal. Judging by the reaction of coaches and fans alike in South Africa, there appears to be genuine surprise that the 22-year-old has decided to move abroad. A former South Africa Schools and U2o captain, Stander had been marked out as a likely senior Springbok in the near future. The viewpoint there is that money may have played a part in the back-rower’s decision. So what exactly have Munster got for their presumably big bucks?

Stander’s swift physical development meant he was marked out as a distinct prospect from an early age. At 17, he was already representing the South Western Districts Eagles U18 side at the annual Craven Week. This tournament is one of the most prestigious schoolboy events in world rugby. It’s played out over a week, usually in July (this year’s version starts next weekend), and is quite often the stage on which future Springboks announce themselves. Despite being a year younger than his rivals, Stander’s displays earned him the captaincy of the South African Schools Academy team in 2007 (The Academy side is basically the Schools ‘B’ team, although political factors play a part in some selections).

Another impressive Craven Week the following year saw the No.8 named captain of the 2008 South African Schools team, a side which included current ‘Bok Patrick Lambie. That summer, Stander graduated from school and the Pretoria-based Blue Bulls swept to sign him. The possibility of playing Super Rugby down the line enticed the young back-row away from the SWD Eagles in his hometown of George. Back in 2008, the new Southern Kings franchise was a mere idea, meaning the highest level Stander could have played with the Eagles was Currie Cup. (From 2013, the Eagles will act as a feeder side to the Kings).

Deon Stegmann and CJ Stander take a break.

Stander (left) is a big youngfella! (c) Getty.

The meteoric rise continued in 2009 as Stander was selected in the South Africa U20 squad for the Junior World Championships, despite being a year young for the age-group. He started all 5 games at No.8, scoring 2 tries, as the Baby Boks finished 3rd. He was back in the squad the following year too, this time as captain. Again, Stander started all 5 games in the 8 jersey, scoring once, as the South Africans earned another 3rd place finish.

Stander returned home to play 12 times for the Bulls in the 2010 Currie Cup. This tournament is the South African equivalent of the PRO12 or ITM Cup, one step below Super Rugby. Stander started 5 times, but interestingly only wore the No.8 jersey once, with Gerrit-Jan van Velze preferred there. Instead, Stander mainly appeared at blindside (the number 7 jersey in SA), a move we have seen plenty of this season. The Bulls managed to reach the semi-finals, before losing to the Sharks.

Turning 21 in 2011 meant that Stander’s international age-grade days were over and his focus switched entirely to the Bulls. The year started well as Stander made 11 appearances, including 5 starts at No.8, in the Bulls’ run to the Vodacom Cup final. This tournament is the third-tier of South African rugby, behind Super Rugby and the Currie Cup. It’s often used to accelerate young players’ development, and that’s certainly what it did for Stander. He scored 3 tries, making an impression with his work-rate and ball-carrying ability.

(c) SA Rugby.

Super Rugby didn’t follow that summer, but Stander went on to play a far more important part in that year’s Currie Cup campaign. He nailed down the starting berth at No.8 and played in all 14 of the Bulls’ games, 11 of them in the starting XV. He showed his try-scoring ability by crossing the whitewash 6 times from the base of the scrum. This form marked him out as a definite Super Rugby squad player for 2012. The back-rower’s 2011 season was topped off nicely when he helped the Bulls U21 side to win the ABSA U21 Currie Cup, scoring a try in the final.

This year’s Super Rugby season started with Stander firmly a squad player. With gym-rat Pierre Spies the incumbent at No.8, Springbok Deon Stegmann at 6 and Jacques Potgieter (four year his senior) at 7, Stander had to make do with a bench spot for the first 2 games. However, a hamstring injury to Stegmann catapulted Stander into the starting team for round 3 and he has coped well at openside. He’s been an ever-present for the Bulls since, although he switched across to blindside in the 4 games leading up to the international break. 

His Super Rugby form led to a call-up to the 42-man Springboks training squad in the build-up to the test series against Wales. Another factor towards the call-up may have been the early murmurings that the 22-year-old was in discussions with Munster. By bringing him into the ‘Boks training group, coach Heyneke Meyer may have been trying to convince Stander to stay in South Africa. However, that might be a cynical suggestion on my part, as Stander has done well for the Bulls, scoring 4 tries in his 14 appearances up to now.

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I’ve only seen Stander in live action twice this season, against the Reds in round 4 and the Chiefs in round 14. Playing at openside against the Reds and blindside against the Chiefs, Stander played the full 80 minutes in both. He didn’t stand out in either game, but at the same time there was nothing to fault in his performances. The first thing that struck me was that Stander is physically well-developed for a 22-year-old. He’s 6’2″ in height, and while the Bulls’ site lists him as 106kg, he’s almost certainly heavier than that. He’s clearly a strong, powerful player, something which is highlighted by the fact that he consistently went in high in the tackle, never getting bounced off.

Watching both games, I immediately felt that Stander was a No.8 playing out of position. He looked slightly unsure of where he should be running, supporting, clearing out, etc. The occasions when he looked truly comfortable were when he got a little bit of time on the ball in space. He showed a few glimpses of soft hands too, but playing at flanker for the Bulls seems to limit that aspect of his game. Much of Stander’s involvement came around the fringes of rucks, and to be honest he didn’t seem overly keen to be stuck in there. When play broke up, he had a good awareness of where the space was.

Having played most of his underage rugby at No.8, Stander is still learning the two other back-row positions and will only become more effective. A recurring feature of both games I watched was his control at the back of the Bulls’ incredibly effective maul. He seemed intent on getting on the ball at the back, showcasing his No.8 instincts. Indeed, he managed to score a try against the Reds from this very position.  He also scored a replica of that try against the Rebels in round 11 (6.33 in the video above). In my opinion, all the signs are that Stander is a natural No.8.

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Stander’s try against the Brumbies in round 9 (2.53 above, definite Steyn knock-on!) showed just how much pace and power the youngster has. From my limited viewing, this is the kind of position Munster will need to use Stander in. Whenever he receives ball in wider channels with a little more time, he looks far more threatening. Playing at 6 and 7, he carried around the fringes more, and while he never went backwards, these carries are for the tight five. His pace would also make him effective off the base of the scrum with the defence 5 metres back.

Stander’s CV and the glimpses I’ve seen in this year’s Super Rugby lead me to believe that he will have an important impact for Munster, most probably at No.8. He’s contracted to the Bulls until the conclusion of the Currie Cup. The final takes place on the 27th of October, and the Bulls will fancy their chances of making the showpiece. It’s quite likely that Munster fans will be paying more attention than usual to the South African tournament as they hope to get a good look at their new signing!

*Has anyone seen Stander playing? If you have, leave a comment below with your thoughts. Do you think he’ll be a good signing? With the possibility of Stander returning to South Africa in two years’ time, should Munster even be making signings like this, possibly stunting the development of Irish players? All opinions and feedback welcome.