Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - There is reason for new Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer to feel as nervous as the various franchise coaches as the 2012 version of the Vodacom Super Rugby competition kicks off on Friday.
As the first South African coach to win the South African trophy, Meyer should have a good understanding of how important it is for there to be a winning culture at Super Rugby level that can flow into the psyche of the national team. His team’s achievement in 2007, coupled with that of the Sharks, who topped the log and hosted an all-South African final, started the momentum which led to the World Cup triumph later that same year.
With the Bulls going on to win two more Super Rugby titles in the next four years and the Stormers becoming consistent contenders by making it into the top two on the final log in the last two seasons, the cycle building up to the last World Cup in New Zealand was a relatively successful one for South Africa. It broke the mould of the first decade of the competition, where local teams were invariably also-rans in the Sanzar regional tournament.
With an exodus of decorated and experienced players being accompanied by the departure of the brains behind the two most successful South African franchises since New Year, there must be a fear that the South Africans might find themselves falling back into the pre-2007 rut of struggling to be competitive.
The player exodus in recent years to the northern hemisphere has denuded the strength of the New Zealand and Australian challenges, and the addition of an extra Australian team has further dented the competitiveness of their teams, so we are unlikely to go back to the days when a South African side was smashed by everyone and finished last by some distance.
But the goal of actually winning the competition has been made much harder by Meyer’s departure from the Bulls to the Springboks and Rassie Erasmus’ recent resignation as Stormers director of rugby due to unhappiness with the way he was treated by Western Province elected officials.
Meyer was employed to rebuild the Bulls in the manner that he built the successful dynasty that spanned the years 2002 through to 2011, and the Bulls board made no secret of how important they felt he was to that objective when they made such a fuss about the SA Rugby Union approach to Meyer to become Springbok coach.
The Bulls impressed in their recent warm-up game against the Cheetahs in Polokwane, but you don’t lose the experience they have without it having an effect. Since last year’s Super Rugby season they have lost Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Gurthro Steenkamp, Fourie du Preez … those names being just a few who represent a veritable who’s who of South African rugby greats.
There is a lot of talent at the Bulls but Meyer was needed to set up the structures and oversee the succession planning, and the possibility of him taking some of the Bulls support staff to the Boks should also be disquieting to the Bulls administration.
The Stormers administration are less panicked about Erasmus’ departure, at least publicly, but then they did of course play a part in him leaving. Some of the elected officials at WP didn’t quite have the grasp of the requirements of modern rugby, and thus never understood the need for a director of rugby – and the penny still hasn’t dropped because it looks as though Allister Coetzee is going to double up as both coach and director.
What is going to happen when in mid-season players are considering their futures and want to talk about contracts, and Coetzee’s focus is on the Stormers’ next game? Already there are indications that some of the Stormers’ young talent is a bit uncertain following Erasmus’ departure, and it is hardly a secret in the Cape that the Bulls would love to get their hands on young lock Eben Etzebeth, if not first choice Rynhardt Elstadt.
It was to release issues relating to succession planning and contracting from the heavy workload of the head coach that the director of rugby position was introduced at the Bulls and the Stormers, and of course Rudolf Straeuli does a similar job as commercial manager at the Sharks.
Of all the South African franchises, the Sharks look to have made the most off-season gains, with areas of previous weakness such as the midfield having been shored up considerably. The evergreen Stefan Terblanche is no longer playing but Marius Joubert is now properly conditioned after arriving from France short of conditioning, and Tim Whitehead (centre) and Riaan Viljoen (fullback) have moved down from WP and the Cheetahs respectively.
Not that those acquistions necessarily make a huge difference to the starting team, and the loss to injury of Beast Mtawarira for the first half of the competition has left the Sharks looking vulnerable in one of their areas of previous strength.
They look likely to be the Stormers’ biggest challengers for the conference honours they won last year, but Friday night’s match against the newlook Bulls should tell us a lot more on this score. The Bulls’ hopes may depend heavily on those remaining experienced players staying fit and available for the entire season. Certainly the prospect of Morne Steyn being injured should be enough to send real shivers of apprehension down the spines of Bulls supporters.
What looks unlikely at this stage, however, and here is the concern for the new Springbok coach, is that any South African team will go all the way this year and actually win the competition, thus ensuring that the players arrive at the international season feeling confident. There has just been too much change at the Bulls and too much upheaval at the Stormers, whereas the Sharks haven’t really added to the starting team that struggled last year and the Lions and Cheetahs lack the necessary depth to mount a sustained challenge.
SA matches in first round(SA, CAT , GMT+2)
Friday 24 February: Bulls v Sharks Loftus 19:10
Saturday 25 February: Stormers v Hurricanes 17:05
Saturday 25 February: Lions v Cheetahs 19:10