The South African teams resume their celebrated regional derbies in Round 7 of the United Rugby Championship and Ellis Park will showcase Saturday’s blockbuster clash between two midfield sensations when the Emirates Lions host the DHL Stormers.
Lions outside centre Henco van Wyk has emerged as a future Springbok and one of the standout talents in the 2022-23 URC, while Samoan veteran Alapati Leiua powers the Stormers midfield while mentoring the Cape side’s next-gen stars.
Van Wyk has exploded onto the scene and into opposing ball-carriers, his penchant for delivering dominant hits in the backfield adding an X-factor to the Lions defence.
Wearing the No 13 jersey and forming a solid midfield partnership with new signing Marius Louw, Van Wyk has helped the Emirates Lions win three of their opening five matches, their best start to a regional competition in years.
The 21-year-old was heroic in the victory in Edinburgh, hunting down enemy runners and making tackle after tackle, his try-saving intervention against a flying Darcy Graham one of the highlights of the early season.
A defensive wrecking ball, his stats point to a player with a legitimate all-round game. Statistically, he ranks among the best centres in the URC in key metrics such as clean breaks, defenders beaten and turnovers won.
"The No 13 jersey has really become a position where defending is paramount, particularly in terms of organisation," said the youngster, who hails from Rustenburg.
"It's definitely an aspect of my game that I pride myself on. I've also learnt that much of that defending comes from the heart, but yeah, from a technical perspective I don't think you can get away playing there if you're not into that aspect."
Van Wyk’s breakthrough owes plenty to the way that he has embraced his role in the outside centre channel, but is also a sign of how the Emirates Lions’ defensive systems have improved under former Springbok and current defence coach Jaque Fourie.
Meanwhile, 34-year-old Leiua is also known for his uncompromising physicality and the veteran has filled the big void left by pre-season injuries to Ruhan Nel and Juan de Jongh.
The former Hurricanes, Wasps and Bristol Bears thumper was a calming influence for second-year Stormers prodigy Sacha Mngomezulu in a bonus-point win over Zebre Parma, while allowing a rejuvenated Dan du Plessis to play with freedom against Ospreys and Cardiff.
With the volume of talent pushing through at the Western Province Rugby Football Union, the Stormers have taken the approach of developing from within their ranks rather than signing in big names, but the acquisition of Leiua has been essential in helping whizz kids such as Mngomezulu realise their full potential.
“We all saw this team play some incredible rugby last season and I want to add to that with my skills,” Leiua said. “This is a great chance to work with some talented young players and experience a new rugby culture.”
Youngsters are more likely to respond to “do what I do” than “do what I say”, and Leiua will be eager to make an example of an Lions youngster who has been making all the right moves in 2022.