Super Rugby’s 22nd edition should be the one in which South African players banish forever that word in our rugby.
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It should be the season when South African rugby’s locally-based players demand respect through performance and not because of patriotism, loyalty and a supposed God-given right to have their ineptness excused.
South Africa’s never been a rugby nation that applauds coming second or finds positives and comfort in our set phases being competent and our goal kicking being accurate.
It wasn’t so until 2016 when the core of South African rugby’s Super Rugby players paraded as charities for leaking tries, losing matches and gifting overseas opposition bonus points.
The emphatic embarrassment of 2016 Super Rugby - the Lions being the exception - should never again be tolerated: not by the supporting public, not by sponsors and investors and certainly not by the players.
The players need to show attitude, mongrel and a refusal to give it away so easily. There will be defeats (plenty of them) and there will be horror weekends when it comes to how many South African teams lose, but it’s in the way that they play that will define so much of the year.
The reference here is not to a particular style of play, to a kicking and territorial based conservative solution to limit damage or to the extravagance of a romanticised ball in hand mess that also excuses a lack of fight.
South Africa’s players, as a collective, have inferior skill to the New Zealanders. Their rugby intelligence, again as a collective, is also in question. Individually, there are South African players the equal of most players in the competition and the Lions, in 2016, are an example of a South African side being as intimidating and imposing as the best of the Kiwis, especially when playing in Johannesburg.
But applauding the odd individual and finding comfort that one of South Africa’s six franchises fronted is embracing the mediocre when South African rugby should be about the mongrel and the magical.
The Lions showed the supposedly impossible to be possible. They played with attitude, with skill and with intensity. They beat four of the five New Zealand franchises but lost at home and away to the champion Hurricanes. On balance they were the best South African team and the second best out of 18. Few could dispute the best team won the competition in 2016.
Few should also dispute the disgraceful performances of South Africa’s other premier teams.
The Sharks conceded 40 points in an away quarter-final and didn’t score a point. The Stormers leaked nine tries and 60 points in a home quarter-final.
These two traditional powerhouses statistically have been the most successful
South African franchises in Super Rugby, with the Stormers (53.7%) fifth overall and the Sharks (52.2%) seventh from 18 teams.
They historically have shown an ability to win more matches than they lose, even if they are the two biggest under achievers in never having won the competition.
So to shrug the shoulders and write off last season’s play-off catastrophe to a bad day at the office is to concede there is no expectation of our players, and with that no consequence.
I, for one, refuse to believe that’s the future of the professional game in this country. The players have to show 2016 to be an aberration.
Only the players can right the wrongs of 2016.
The Lions, in one season, banished history. Their players won global applause and respect through performance. Game day became a sought after day. Monday became a good day for Lions supporters.
Good news sells and it turns the non believers. The Lions, as with England since the debacle of their 2015 World Cup implosion, transformed in one season.
Other South African franchises must similarly be judged.
The South African rugby public has been loyal in support of those who play Super Rugby. The standard response on social media forums is the misguided one that local is lekker and local should always be rewarded ahead of foreign-based South Africans. The belief is the one who stays and plays in South Africa does so because of nationalism and patriotism.
In 2016 the core of locally based South Africans didn’t deserve this kind of loyalty from supporters and they didn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as many of their countrymen playing overseas.
Those nine South African players who won Montpellier a first ever European Shield title showed more mongrel and class than those home boys who so easily rolled over and played dead in the 2016 playoffs.
South African rugby’s history has been synonymous with players who refused to lose and when they did they didn’t do so easily.
It’s that mentality that has to be the hallmark of this year’s campaign.
Rugby will prosper, in support and commercially, if the players restore integrity through performance.
The Varsity Cup screams delight, commercially and in supporter numbers, because of the performances of the players.
South African Super Rugby players in 2017 have to deliver pride, passion and performance.
The meek dance with mediocrity but in 2017 it’s the mighty among our Super Rugby players who have to show the rugby public a dominant and more daring dance.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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