Durban - It is two years now since blockbusting centre Andre Esterhuizen left the Sharks for the green grass of England and he has been missed ever since at Hollywoodbets Kings Park, with the search to replace him producing only lukewarm success.
Marius Louw and Jeremy Ward duelled for the No 12 jersey, with Louw making the better fist of it but still the search went on and on Saturday at Emirates Airline Park there will be a new pretender to Esterhuizen’s throne in former Wallaby Ben Tapuai, who will be making his debut in the Sharks’ URC match against the Lions.
Perhaps it is is a good omen that Tapuai comes to the Sharks via Harlequins, the English club where Esterhuizen is blazing a trail across the Premiership, recently winning three Man of the Match awards in a row.
The 33-year-old Tapuai previous played for the Queensland Reds for six years and the Western Force before joining Quins in 2018.
“Ben played eight Test matches for Australia, he is a skilful player with a big left foot (as does Esterhuizen) and he has a lot of experience,” coach Sean Everitt said. “He brings a different dynamic to our backline, especially when you have a Lukhanyo Am outside him, so it is exciting and he adds a new dimension to our play with his confidence and enthusiasm. He really has made a difference.”
If Tapuai can punch holes in the Lions defence, with the silky Am running off him, the Sharks then have one of the most dangerous back threes in world rugby in Makazole Mapimpi, Sbu Nkosi and Aphelele Fassi.
Everitt did, though, caution that Tapuai should not be overhyped as a like-for-like replacement for Esterhuizen, who is in sensational form and knocking hard on the Springbok door for a recall.
“It is really difficult to fill the boots of Andre at 115 kgs and the way he is playing overseas,” the coach said. “But we were looking for an experienced 12 because our flyhalves are all young. Curwin Bosch (who is injured) has just turned 24, Boeta Chamberlain is only 22; and our first-choice scrumhalves in Jaden Hendrikse, Grant Williams and Sanele Nohamba are also very young.”
Among the forwards, the notable absentees are Springboks Siya Kolisi and Bongi Mbonambi.
Everitt explained that the former Stormers duo had had extra time off in December and thus needed an extra week of training before they move back into match mode.
The Vodacom United Rugby Championship is back in South Africa 🔥 Here is your Cell C Sharks team to take on the Emirates Lions this Saturday!— The Sharks (@SharksRugby) January 20, 2022
Full team: https://t.co/SKxExs3GaC#OurSharksForever #TacklingNewShores Vodacom #URC pic.twitter.com/ZBQkThtqSP
That means the powerful Kerron van Vuuren continues at hooker while James Venter gets a golden opportunity at openside flank.
It should not be forgotten that when the Sharks were setting Super Rugby on fire in early 2020, Venter was exceptional.
The other contender for the No 6 jersey, Dylan Richardson, is injured.
Bok loosehead Ox Nche is also back in the starting lineup after missing the URC game against the Bulls on December 3, while Grant Williams gets the nod at scrumhalf, with Jaden Hendrikse set to make his comeback from a broken ankle off the bench.
There is also a foreign flavour on the bench where the flyhalf cover for Chamberlain is Argentine international Tito Bonilla.
15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 Sbu Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am (c), 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Boeta Chamberlain, 9 Grant Williams, 8 Phepsi Buthelezi, 7 Jeandre Labuschagne, 6 James Venter, 5 Hyron Andrews, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Kerron van Vuuren, 1 Ox Nche.
Substitutes: 16 Fez Mbatha, 17 Ntuthuko Mchunu, 18 Khutha Mchunu, 19 Reniel Hugo, 20 Henco Venter, 21 Jaden Hendrikse, 22 Tito Bonilla, 23 Jeremy Ward.