JOHANNESBURG – Young Aphiwe Dyantyi was all the rage after his spectacular try for the Lions in their opening round win against the Sharks last weekend, but the performance in midfield of “veteran” Lionel Mapoe was just as special.
The 29-year-old bossed the midfield and perhaps just shaded his opposite number, the highly-rated and very talented Lukhanyo Am of the Sharks, announcing himself from the off as a serious contender for higher honours on a more regular basis this year.
Mapoe went into the encounter on the back of a solid season with the Kubota Spears in Japan and being match-fit and sharp helped him in scoring two of his team’s four tries as the Lions opened their Super Rugby season with a 26-19 win.
There was talk before the first weekend of action about the depth at centre in the Lions ranks and just who new coach Swys de Bruin would pick to start the year off in the centres.
After all, he also had Rohan Janse van Rensburg to consider as well as fit-again Howard Mnisi, and Harold Vorster - all specialist No 12s, who are very capable of slotting in at inside centre, too.
Janse van Rensburg had come off a special few weeks playing for Sale Sharks, while Mnisi was close to getting a national call-up in 2016 before injury felled him at the start of last year, ruling him out of the entire 2017 season.
In the end De Bruin went with the experienced Mapoe at No 13 and young Vorster at 12; the latter a player who really caught the eye last year with his powerful, well-timed runs - something that again stood out in his performance on Saturday.
Mapoe and Vorster appear to be the first choice pairing, for now at least, for De Bruin, and after their showing first up it’s clear it’s going to be difficult to break them up.
They were mainly sound in defence and their attacking play was, like last season, well-suited to the Lions’ ball-in-hand style.
Mapoe especially showed he will be tough to keep out of the national team if he continues to show the form he displayed at the weekend, but that said there are several No 13s in South Africa who’ll have aspirations of turning out for the Boks.
Here one thinks of Francois Venter, Jesse Kriel, Am and even Mapoe’s own Lions teammates.
But experience and knowing when to run what lines cannot be taught, and the Lions man showed in his two-try display against the Sharks that he’s a player to be watched this year.