Comebacks and contenders
Sport24 columnist Alan Solomons (File)
The competition is now separating the wheat from the chaff, with the top sides starting to emerge. In my view, the top four are the Chiefs, Stormers, Crusaders and Bulls.
This shows the flaw in the conference system whereby an Australian team is automatically guaranteed a spot in the top six and a playoff place.
The New Zealand teams are really starting to impress. They tend to focus a lot on skills, whereas South African sides focus more on defence and structure.
At the moment, I feel the Chiefs are the top team in the competition. In the past, they were a team that drifted in and out of games, but they have sharpened their discipline. Dave Rennie has done a great job as has assistant coach Wayne Smith.
They are a very good all-round side. Their defence is sound; they are strong at the setpieces and have some lethal attackers. Aaron Cruden is playing particularly well.
In contrast, the Reds have been struggling this season. It’s often very difficult to sustain success. There’s an old gypsy saying, “In the hour of your greatest success, are sown the seeds of your own destruction.” What can easily happen is a team can bask in their own reflected glory.
However, in fairness to the Reds they have had a plethora of injuries and have missed Quade Cooper’s guiding influence at pivot. It shows that Australian sides lack the depth to cope with injuries to key players, and can’t realistically field five top sides. In truth, Australia can cope with a maximum of three sides in Super Rugby - the Rebels and Force just don’t have the personnel. The Brumbies have been the best of the Australian sides.
I think the Crusaders will have too much firepower for the Waratahs this weekend. The Crusaders are perennially slow starters, but they are now starting to hit their straps.
Dan Carter’s groin is obliviously still a concern hence the decision to play him at 12. But that said the young Tom Taylor has kicked superbly and has run the game effectively at flyhalf.
In American football terms, he’s the quarterback. He’s the player that manages and controls the game. Whereas the 12 leads the defence. However, I believe the modern day inside centre has to also be capable of playing at No 10 - and have strong distribution skills and be a good reader of the game.
The Stormers have had a great season, and deserve a semi-final spot. Heyneke Meyer will very impressed that they are now a strong all-round side.
The Bulls have also done well this season. Pierre Spies has found a new lease of life captaining the side, and I’ve been impressed with their young loose forwards and Francois Hougaard has been fantastic at scrumhalf.
There’s been talk that Heyneke Meyer may well bring Victor Matfield out of retirement and Fourie du Preez back from Japan. They were the finest players in their positions of their generation. Both are iconic figures in world rugby and the last thing one would want to see is their reputations tarnished.
I think Victor made the right decision at the time he retired from the game. I’m not saying he can’t make a comeback, but from my viewpoint, the wisest decision from him would be to not re-enter the fray.
In sport, you often see athletes making comebacks, but they hardly ever make the same impact as before.
While du Preez is still playing and hasn’t officially retired from international rugby, he’s also very near to the end of his career.
In all honesty, we have enough quality players in South Africa to not really need to look overseas. In terms of tempo, intensity and quality, the rugby is far superior in the South.
However, Jaque Fourie - who is still at the height of his powers - is a massive loss to the Springboks. That said, JP Pietersen is strong, quick and has a certain X factor and can no doubt cope at outside centre. Juan de Jongh is another strong contender who can certainly do the job for the Boks.
Some have criticised De Jongh’s distribution skills, but that facet of his game can be sharpened. I don’t think it will prohibit him from challenging for the No 13 jersey. Alan Solomons was assistant coach to Nick Mallett when the Springboks went 17 Tests unbeaten. He is currently EP Kings’ Director of Rugby and is a consultant to the IRB.
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