Sharks midfielder Esterhuizen is in a ‘really good space’
DURBAN – Sharks centre Andre Esterhuizen’s compelling form in Super Rugby has turned up the heat on Damian de Allende and renewed the arm wrestle the pair have enjoyed over the Springbok No 12 jersey for a few seasons now.
The duel between these powerfully-built centres began in June 2018 when Esterhuizen made his debut for the Boks in Rassie Erasmus’ first Test in charge and he went on to play eight Tests that year.
But last year, De Allende struck his best form and nailed down the inside centre position for the World Cup while Esterhuizen dropped out of the squad completely.
De Allende went on to have an excellent World Cup and is deservedly the incumbent, but he has subsequently left South Africa for the Wild Knights, and while he has been out of sight in Japan, Esterhuizen has hit barnstorming form for the table-topping Sharks, reminding director of rugby Erasmus and new Bok coach Jacques Nienaber that he is very much still around.
And this is after a relatively quiet start to Super Rugby for the 26-year-old. Interestingly, it was when coach Sean Everitt made Esterhuizen captain for the Sharks’ third tour match, the victory over the Rebels in Melbourne, that he burst into life and he has been in blockbusting form since - he played a significant role in the Sharks’ win over the Stormers in their last match before Super Rugby was halted.
“Andre has always enjoyed responsibility and when we needed to rest Lukhanyo Am (in line with Bok protocols) I had no hesitation in making him captain,” Everitt said. “Leading the team definitely boosted his performance on the field - he likes to lead by example.”
Where Esterhuizen has been so useful to Everitt is in his ability to initiate momentum by hurling over the advantage line, making him the broadsword in a backline of rapiers.
“You need variation,” Everitt said. “As much as we want to play an expansive game, it is very good to have a ball carrier that can get the team going when nothing is on. Andre is always going to get you over the gain line and then you can work from there,” Everitt said.
Everitt has given Esterhuizen the job of leading the Sharks’ defence, and their defence has been outstanding this year, with Esterhuizen’s tackling bordering on savage.
He also has the highest tackle completion in the Sharks team.
“We have also given Andre the responsibility of clearing in certain situations - he has a booming left foot and he has grown into that role of co-kicker with Curwin Bosch,” Everitt said. “Andre is a popular team member and he is in a really good space - hopefully for him he will be the starting centre for the Boks when international rugby resumes.
“His passing game has improved dramatically and I can see no flaws in his game. Our 12s these days need to be a link between forwards and backs, and Andre is doing that with his ability to offload in the tackle.”
Esterhuizen wasn’t always a playmaker, of course.
He arrived at the Sharks in 2014 fresh out of school in Klerksdorp and was as raw as they come.
Esterhuizen was always going to be a tough customer to bring down at 1.92m and 115kgs, so “bashing” was his natural game and he is the first to admit that his game needed serious development.
“When I joined the Sharks, they tried to turn me into a flank because I was strong with ball in hand, but thankfully that did not work out and I have been coached into distributing the ball,” Esterhuizen recalled.
“My game has come a long way through good coaching, and I also believe my time in club rugby in Japan (with the Sanix Blues) fast-tracked my passing skills because the game is so fast there.”@MikeGreenaway67