WP, Lions shining lights for SA

2014-12-22 14:18
Cheslin Kolbe (Gallo Images)

Johannesburg - South African rugby made a major leap in 2014 with domestic franchises abandoning the dreaded conservative approach and adopting an expansive style.

Leading the way were the Lions in their first year back in Super Rugby after a year in the wilderness.

With a young crop of loyal fringe players, coach Johan Ackermann forged an exciting brand of rugby which earned the team growing support around the country.

Although the Johannesburg side did not make it into the top half of the competition log, they did complete their best ever season in the premier Southern Hemisphere provincial tournament.

Instead, it was the Sharks, under the tutelage of World Cup winning coach Jake White, that came close to claiming the Super Rugby title.

The coastal side started out strongly with four consecutive victories at home while three wins out of their four matches on their Australasian tour.

Despite beating the Crusaders in their own backyard earlier in the campaign, the Sharks were left with the unenviable task of having to beat the seven-time champions to advance to the final.

No South African team has ever succeeded in winning a Super Rugby playoff in New Zealand and, after suffering a 38-6 defeat, that record remained intact.

Following another mass exodus of players, the Bulls fell painstakingly close to reaching the qualifying round of the competition after winning all of their home matches.

It was their poor record on tour and inability to score tries that ultimately derailed their plans and instead they finished in ninth place on the log.

The South African teams, in general, scored the least number of tries in the tournament with the exception of the Cheetahs - although they conceded nearly 20 more five-pointers than they scored.

The Cheetahs improved defence last year made all the difference to the side, making it into the Super Rugby playoffs for the first time.

Instead of building on their defensive efforts from last year, the Bloemfontein franchise abandoned it entirely in 2014.

This had dire repercussions as they finished at the bottom of the South African conference and only one place from the bottom on the overall log.

A poor start coupled with a dreadful draw saw the Stormers tour Australasia after only two matches in South Africa, making it an uphill battle for the Cape Town-based side.

Then, the arrival of Gert Smal as Western Province Director of Rugby saw the team abolish their outright defensive approach for a more ball-in-hand one.

Although they finished in a lowly 11th place on the overall log, the newly adopted game plan paid rich dividends in the Currie Cup competition.

Playing with reckless abandon, Western Province were the early pace-setters in the Currie Cup with the Golden Lions biting at their heels.

The Blue Bulls and the Sharks launched a late bid but the Lions and WP's ball-in-hand approach proved superior during the season.

Both sides dazzled with the Golden Lions scoring the most tries - 44 - and Western Province the second highest, with 40, at the end of the round-robin phase.

Facing each other in only four previous finals and the first time in 28 years, Western Province finally won the title on home soil with a 19-16 victory.

This year also saw the Eastern Province Kings and the Pumas returning to the Currie Cup Premier Division.

The Kings were clearly out of their depth managing a single victory, over the Mpumalanga side, in their last match of the season.

The Pumas on the other hand made a fairytale start to their re-entry to the competition, claiming the scalps of the Free State Cheetahs and the Sharks.

Halfway through the campaign, the Pumas seemed to be well on their way to claiming a semi-final berth but they ran out of the steam in the second part to end in a creditable sixth place avoiding the qualifying matches.

With the Kings guaranteed a place in the Premier Division, Griquas could not avoid finishing among the bottom two teams, setting up a battle for a spot in next year's competition.

Meanwhile, the Blue Bulls showed improvement from last season reaching the semi-final where they were defeated by Western Province in Cape Town.

After starting the season with two comprehensive defeats to the Lions and WP, the Bulls got their campaign on track while blooding some talent for the future.

The Sharks also got off to a slow start with defeats to Griquas and the Pumas before they ended the regular season with a flourish, only to be denied by the Lions in the semi-final in Johannesburg.

In what can only be described as a rebuilding phase, the Free State Cheetahs, under newly appointed Currie Cup coach Rory Duncan, found the going tough against the more settled sides and were lucky to finish in fifth place.

Read more on:    lions  |  stormers  |  wp  |  currie cup  |  super 15  |  cape town  |  johannesburg  |  rugby

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