Not since the days of Doug Howlett and Jean de Villiers have Munster made a statement like signing World Cup-winning duo RG Snyman and Damian de Allende this summer
Height: 2.07m (6ft 9ins)
Weight: 117kg (18st 7lbs)
South Africa caps (tries): 23 (1)
Former clubs: Blue Bulls, Bulls, Honda Heat
Honours: World Cup 2019, Rugby Championship 2019
‘From the day I met RG, I knew he was destined for bigger things’
At the Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool in Pretoria, they know a thing or two about producing elite sportsmen, and as soon as Rudolph Gerhardus Snyman strolled through the gates of the school they knew they had something special on their hands.
Celebrating its centenary this year, the school is better known as ‘Affies’ and has produced two South African cricket captains in AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis as well as World Cup-winning Springboks Wynand Olivier and Fourie du Preez.
In 2013, the school enjoyed its finest year to date; going the entire campaign unbeaten, and although that team produced a number of professionals, it was the rangy second-row with pace to burn and hands of gold who drove them forward at every turn.
The school is situated across the road from Loftus Versfeld, the home of the Bulls Super Rugby franchise, so when in the late 2000s former student Johann van Graan got a call from his old coach Jan Grabie to come see the 6ft 5in 13-year-old who was already showing signs of becoming something special, he didn’t have far to travel.
A decade later, Van Graan has staked the future of his Munster tenure on the broad shoulders of Snyman and his fellow Springbok World Cup winner Damian de Allende.
The centre may be the better-known player, but there is reason to believe that it is the acquisition of Snyman, who grew to 6ft 9in and added a few more pounds to weigh in at 18-and-a-half stone (117kg) since finishing school, that will finally put the 2006 and 2008 Heineken Cup winners back at the top table of European rugby.
Jaco Koch coaches the senior side at Affies and when Snyman wore the white jersey with green, red and yellow stripes, he was the conditioning coach. It didn’t take long to recognise his potential.
“From the day I met RG, I knew he was destined for bigger things,” he says. “He had a unique blend of physicality, skills and attitude that set him apart.
“This formidable combination made it clear that he was an elite athlete. He could do it all: he could run, catch, hand-off, pass, tackle and kick. He could make crazy one-handed offloads before, during and after contact. He never shied away from any physicality, was strong enough to grind between the forwards and showed skills and deceptive speed with which he could play in the backline.
“He was a hard-working individual, with excellent lineout abilities and aerial skills.”
Koch recalls the student would report for extra gym sessions on top of the team programme and he was rewarded with provincial and international recognition at every level.
Back then, Affies’ strict school rules meant Snyman sported a crew cut and a fresh face but he has since added a mane of blond hair and a shaggy beard that only add to the extraordinary physique that gets team-mates, former players and coaches purring.
His physical gifts have even moved the normally stoic Peter O’Mahony. The Munster skipper is not a man known for hyperbole, but he couldn’t help but pile on the praise having trained alongside the Springbok.
“He is an incredible specimen altogether,” the Ireland star gushed. “I have never seen anything like it, (a) very impressive, physical man.”
Former Munster centre and ex-Springbok captain Jean de Villiers describes him as “a massive human being but with an unbelievable skill level for a lock forward”, while the Springboks’ Irish assistant Felix Jones says: “For a huge man he has unbelievable acceleration, really good offloading ability and will obviously bring a lot of mass.”
Over the past few years, Rugbypass.com has built an index of players using statistical data to compare performances and rank players across positions.
Their model gives Snyman a score of 93, making him, in its eyes, the best player in the world, ahead of James Ryan, fellow Springbok Eben Etzebeth and All Blacks Ardie Savea and Richie Mo’unga.
His profile would be higher had Rassie Erasmus not kept him in reserve as a key part of his ‘Bomb-squad’ bench at the World Cup.
Aiming to finish stronger than he started, the former Munster supremo sent Snyman and pals in to lift his team’s energy, and the results were devastating as he helped his country to their third World Cup. He’d have started in any other team at the tournament.
Having coached Snyman at schools and U-20 level, Van Graan was still involved with the Boks when the prodigious lock donned the green jersey for the first time, against the Barbarians in 2016.
But it was in the three-Test series against England in 2018 when he showed just how good he can be on the international stage, relishing the close physical combat with Maro Itoje and Co, but also breaking out with lung-busting bursts.
In South Africa, he has been labelled as a hybrid of their legendary locks Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha.
Lineout supremo Matfield was still at the Bulls when he was coming through and he worked closely with Snyman to help bring his strategic game up to speed with his obvious physical gifts.
His time at the Bulls has been interspersed with lucrative stints in Japan, but when Van Graan was presented with the chance to invest in his squad by an unknown private investor last year, he instantly went back to the kid he first saw tearing it up in Pretoria.
“I’ve known RG for a long time. He’s different to your normal lock,” he says. “He’s versatile. He’s one of the quickest locks I’ve seen. His offloading skills are incredible and signing him, he’s very different to the general type of forward we have in terms of his offloading ability.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete in terms of what he can do, I just think he’s got potential to be one of the very best rugby players in the world.
“He’s a lot to learn, he’s not the finished product yet. That was part of the talks to get him across. In terms of his lineout calling, his defensive game. He’s only in his early 20s. He appreciates the fact a lot of hard work lies ahead of him as well. He came to Munster to be better, to become better.”
Munster fans, who have been poring over videos of Snyman ripping it up in Japan on YouTube, will hope the arrangement is reciprocal – starting when he comes face to face with Ryan at the Aviva Stadium on August 22.
Koch fully expects him to thrive.
“Like Affies, Munster Rugby has a proud history and lot of tradition,” he says. “This will suit him and give him a platform to excel. We are very proud of him and are looking forward to seeing him run out in Munster colours.”
DAMIAN DE ALLENDE
Height: 1.89m (6ft 2ins)
Weight: 101kg (15st 13lbs)
South Africa caps (tries): 47 (6)
Former clubs: Western Province, Stormers, Kinetsu Liners, Panasonic Wild Knights
Honours: World Cup 2019, Rugby Championship 2019
‘He’s probably one of the best passers I’ve ever seen in the game’
Sitting in his home in Limerick, Johann van Graan watched events in Yokohama with a smile on his face. As a former Springbok assistant coach, he had skin in the game as his compatriots edged their way past Wales in a taut semi-final. Unbeknownst to almost everyone else, however, the man who broke the game wide open had already committed to joining Van Graan at Munster in the summer of 2020.
With the scores tied at 9-9, Willie le Roux crabbed along the edge of the Welsh 22 before dishing the ball off to Damian de Allende who, faced with three defenders, looked to have little room to manoeuvre. The centre made the most of it; standing Dan Biggar up, turning Owen Watkins and holding off Tomos Williams’ tackle to score the all-important try.
“It was a testament to the signing, he had the World Cup that he had,” Van Graan says of his new recruit. “Once I saw he scored that try against Wales you are excited to see those performances on the very big stage when you know those players are coming to your club.”
News of De Allende’s move came in the hours after he and his team-mates had gone on to claim the Webb Ellis trophy against England a week later.
The more established of the two players who arrived in June, the centre’s name generated plenty of excitement in this part of the world. But in his native land he remains a divisive figure.
In December, a month after he had played a pivotal role in delivering a third World Cup for the Rainbow Nation, ‘SA Rugby’ magazine ran a feature on the 28-year-old Cape Town native with the headline ‘Polarising Figure’.
Springbok fans are notoriously hard to please and De Allende was in the team’s midfield for many of the bad days before Rassie Erasmus took over.
An infamous red card at a pivotal moment of a loss to New Zealand in 2017 didn’t help, but it is hard to reconcile his public perception at home with the esteem in which he is held on the world stage.
At Milnerton High School in Cape Town, there is no such division of opinion. Unlike Affies, where his fellow Munster recruit RG Snyman came through, the mixed school on the southern tip of Africa has no tradition of producing internationals.
De Allende broke the mould to become the school’s first Springbok.
And his experience in coming from a smaller school means he is no stranger to having to battle perceptions.
“Damian never made schoolboy teams,” Heinrich Martin, his coach and mentor says. “He first made Western Province U-19 Currie Cup. His success is actually, in terms of coming from a small school, it’s so huge.
“Small schools don’t tend to play in the finals, when it comes to trials people tend to look at the bigger schools for provincial teams. But, it just shows that the talent couldn’t be denied.
“It’s one of the reasons he is where he is today. We had a very honest discussion about it, we worked on a plan and at U-19 level it is not controlled by schools but by the union itself. I told him, that’s where he’s going to get his game.
“That’s where he got it. The plan was just that he was going to work hard after our disappointment, we knew that he would have a year to prepare for the following season and that’s what we did. We got him ready, he worked extremely hard to make the U-19 Currie Cup team in 2010 and they won the tournament that year.”
Martin knew De Allende was worth his time and effort.
“The first time I arrived at the school in 2007 he was 15 years old and I said to someone this kid is going to become a Springbok,” he says. “His hands, the way he attacks the ball; there was always something special about him.”
Within four years, De Allende was capped for his country and while he’s spent time in Japan, played in two World Cups and won a World Cup and a Rugby Championship, he still attracts criticism at home.
Partly that’s because of the role he is handed by his coaches who love his ability to win collisions and recycle possession.
He can do so much more, however. Springbok legend Bryan Habana, who played with De Allende at the Stormers, recently hailed “his ability to not only dominate the collision on attack and defence, his passing – he’s probably one of the best passers I’ve ever seen in the game off both left and right.”
Stormers coach Robbie Fleck is another ex-Springbok who has coached De Allende for much of his career. He believes the 48-times-capped World Cup winner is under-appreciated.
“Everyone has labelled him and put him in a box, saying he is this one-dimensional player who only gets across the advantage line,” Fleck told ‘SA Rugby’ magazine.
“There’s no doubt he does that and he is really good at it. But there are subtleties to his game and skills that people don’t recognise and appreciate enough.
“He is one of the best passers in the game. When he gets time and a bit of space he can put his outside backs away. I guess he has been playing to a certain game-plan, but when he plays his game, he has the physicality and beautiful subtleties that don’t often get noticed.”
Midfield has been a major conundrum for Munster who have had a procession of centres come and go since their explosive Kiwi partnership of Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi broke up.
De Allende is the highest-calibre signing they have made since Jean de Villiers, but the former Springbok’s year at Thomond Park is a cautionary tale. Still, De Allende’s familiarity with Van Graan and experience of moving abroad already should help. If he clicks with Chris Farrell outside Joey Carbery, it could be an explosive combination.
Martin remains close to his former student, who visits the school whenever he’s home, and he believes the move to Munster was a strategic one for the centre.
“I think Ireland is good for him in terms of playing in different circumstances. The World Cup is in France; I think he has got one more shot at a World Cup and playing in northern hemisphere conditions and that will extend his lifeline to the next World Cup,” he said.
“It was good for him to be in Japan, they play a nice, fast game and he could extend his skills nicely there. The northern hemisphere is much more structured, the under-foot conditions are difficult. I think it will give him more experience with the way the game is played in the north.”
Munster fans will hope the relationship is mutually beneficial as De Allende and his compatriot Snyman drive them back to Europe’s top table.