Cape Town - All of the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks, traditionally South Africa’s strongest franchises in Super Rugby, have reason to feel fairly upbeat about their 2015 ordinary-season schedules.
SANZAR revealed the roster for next season - the last before the competition expands yet again - this week, and at least on paper there seems a better chance of the SA challenge being better than this year’s (only the Sharks made the playoffs, and were losing semi-finalists) as the draw is largely kind to the domestic trio of superpowers.
Jake White’s Sharks were widely considered to have had a dream draw in 2014, given the opportunity it presented for them to build a tidy head of steam on South African soil - including a generous allocation of Kings Park games - before their overseas leg.
Results for them in the first half of the programme seemed to bear out that theory, although the down side was that they found the going much tougher after the “turn” as fatigue and injuries also set in significantly and certain players were badly over-used.
It was one reason why they slipped out of the vital top two spots ahead of the finals series, and eventually bombed out 38-6 in an away semi to the Crusaders.
Of the other two major SA sides, the normally high-riding Stormers came an unusual cropper earlier this year, ending 11th on the overall log and their season being hamstrung by an unkind draw which saw them travel abroad after only one home-town opportunity at
“Fortress Newlands” and tackle New Zealand tough nuts the Crusaders and Chiefs in quick succession - they duly crashed each time to quickly lose touch with the competition’s pace-setters and that was more or less how things remained for them.
The Bulls were less stymied by the fixture list, and largely had themselves to blame for failure to reach the last six; a costly late-season reverse to the Lions in Johannesburg, where they fatally rested senior statesman Victor Matfield, was arguably the turning point.
Here is my SA team-by-team assessment of next year’s draw:
SHARKS (third on overall table in 2014):
They might have expected a stinker for 2015 after this year’s perceived favourable roster (even if it produced a nasty sting in its tail because they had so few Durban matches towards the climax). But in reality it again isn’t too bad: successive home matches against domestic rivals the Cheetahs and Lions seem to allow an opportunity for some early momentum. Again their Australasian leg comes in the second half of the itinerary, and handily straight after a refreshing bye. The flip side is that that first bye only comes after 10 matches for them, so they will have played a lot of uninterrupted rugby ahead of it. The second bye coming in the second-last round isn’t ideal either, although another positive is that this year they do end their obligations with two appearances before the Kings Park faithful: Rebels and Stormers respectively.
Fixtures (don’t play Blues, Brumbies): Cheetahs (h), Lions (h), Bulls (a), Stormers (a), Cheetahs (a), Chiefs (h), Force (h), Crusaders (h), Lions (a), Bulls (h), bye, Highlanders (a), Hurricanes (a), Waratahs (a), Reds (a), Rebels (h), bye, Stormers (h).
BULLS (ninth in 2014):
The three-time champions have potentially the nicest start of all SA sides, with three on trot at Loftus including two key derbies against the Stormers and Sharks. Their byes are also quite handily spaced, although they need to ensure they’re in solid playoffs contention before their very late departure for New Zealand and Australia, where opportunities to climb the table can be notoriously few and far between for teams from our shores. That said, it isn’t a tour from hell, on paper. By the time the passport-requiring is over, the Bulls have just one more match - at home to the Cheetahs. Big plus: no game against defending champions the Waratahs.
Fixtures (don’t play Highlanders, Waratahs): Stormers (h), Hurricanes (h), Sharks (h), Cheetahs (a), bye, Force (h), Crusaders (h), Lions (a), Reds (h), Sharks (a), Stormers (a), Lions (h), bye, Blues (a), Chiefs (a), Brumbies (a), Rebels (a), Cheetahs (h).
STORMERS (11th in 2014):
The Capetonians, so often strong playoffs material despite their rare wobbly this year, have a much kinder start this time, even if Bulls in Pretoria is a tricky first hurdle. They then have another four games on SA soil (including three at Newlands) before they pack their bags for the long-haul venture. The tour isn’t as formidable on paper as their last one, even if the cup-holding ‘Tahs will tackle them in Sydney. The Stormers can also make a good push for the finals series, after a bye, when they play the Rebels, Cheetahs and Lions in that order at Newlands, before they end with a Durban derby. Another good development is skipping the Crusaders in 2015 – at least in ordinary season – so there won’t be one of those awkward, often tense days when so many Western Cape fans turn out in red and white.
Fixtures (don’t play Crusaders, Reds): Bulls (a), Blues (h), Lions (a), Sharks (h), Chiefs (h), bye, Highlanders (a), Hurricanes (a), Waratahs (a), Force (a), Bulls (h), Cheetahs (a), Brumbies (h), bye, Rebels (h), Cheetahs (h), Lions (h), Sharks (a).
LIONS (12th in 2014):
The Lions get one of their byes as the only inactive team on the last weekend of ordinary season, which is about as useful as equipping a bicycle with a caravan tow-bar, isn’t it? It also means they will go a couple of pretty long periods without the luxury of a weekend off. They do get their overseas leg out of the way fairly swiftly, so if it’s been an unproductive period for them at least there’s the consolation of abundant activity afterwards in their beloved, high-altitude Big Smoke.
Fixtures (don’t play Chiefs, Force): Hurricanes (h), Sharks (a), Stormers (h), Blues (a), Crusaders (a), Rebels (a), Reds (a), Bulls (h), Sharks (h), bye, Cheetahs (h), Bulls (a), Highlanders (h), Brumbies (h), Cheetahs (a), Waratahs (h), Stormers (a), bye.
CHEETAHS: (14th in 2014):
South Africa’s worst-performing side this year - sadly after such a wonderful campaign by their standards in 2013 - not too much will be expected of them in 2015 as they have surrendered so many stalwarts and may be in gradual rebuild mode once again. It will be irritating for them that they play the Sharks away first up, then promptly have a bye ahead of their first Bloemfontein fixture. Their tour looks a particularly horrendous one, with Crusaders, Chiefs and Brumbies in successive weeks before the relative “relief” of the Force in Perth, en route home. Stormers, Waratahs and Bulls (two of those away derbies) is also a rather challenging finish ...
Fixtures (don’t play Hurricanes, Rebels): Sharks (a), bye, Blues (h), Bulls (h), Sharks (h), Crusaders (a), Chiefs (a), Brumbies (a), Force (a), Reds (h), Lions (a), Stormers (h), bye, Highlanders (h), Lions (h), Stormers (a), Waratahs (h), Bulls (a).
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