Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The damaging effects of the ever-weakening rand on the South African game have come home to roost in Super Rugby 2014.
A deceptive gloss will probably be placed over the collective SA conference effort if the Sharks go on to win the title – albeit now against mounting odds -- or at least fight their way pluckily to the final.
But whether or not they grace the showpiece, it cannot disguise the fact that the broad SA challenge in ordinary season was among its least convincing in the competition’s history.
Just for one thing, the country got easily its worst positioning for the finals series since the advent of the expanded, three-conference format in 2011: only one team qualifying, the lowest tally yet, and that side in unfavourable third overall.
Previously there have always been at least two SA teams making the cut, and that peaked at three – all of Stormers, Bulls and Sharks – in 2012.
But this year saw a regression in fortunes for all of the Stormers, Bulls and Cheetahs, and South African franchises occupying four of the last seven positions on the overall log.
New Zealand sides earned a total of 42 wins in the conference season, Australians 40 and South Africans 36.
Further damning stats: NZ sides registered 219 tries, Aussies 212 and South Africans a distant 156, whilst in bonus-point terms NZ outfits achieved 43, Aussies 32 and South Africans 27. A common denominator is South African inferiority in all the key departments.
Should the Sharks lose their effective quarter-final against the Highlanders at Kings Park on Saturday, it would be the first time in 11 years that a South African side is entirely absent from the semi-finals (in the 2003 Super 12, the quartet was the title-winning Blues, plus Crusaders, Hurricanes and Brumbies).
Luckily Super Rugby fortunes tend to have a pretty minimal effect on prospects for the Test-level Castle Rugby Championship (formerly Tri-Nations) not long after Super Rugby’s conclusion, but it is particularly galling nevertheless that even the Aussie five-team challenge was statistically more productive than the SA one this year.
Australia has a significantly smaller player pool to draw on, not to mention the distraction of various other codes of football to compete with, and South Africa is supposedly a traditional juggernaut of rugby union.
It seems very feasible to surmise that the shedding of quality players to more lucrative overseas markets is beginning to take a noticeable toll on our own playing pool.
In an interview I did with SARU chief executive Jurie Roux less than a year ago, he passionately stressed how the weak rand “kills us” in the quest to hang onto star names domestically.
He lamented then how the rand had weakened against the Euro, for example, from 11 to 13 just during the first nine months or so of the 2013 calendar year – and the exchange rate has since receded well further to currently around 14.5.
It is making South Africa increasingly vulnerable to the seizure to Europe (and Japan) of players in or even some way short of their primes; in the old days it was generally more a case of older players giving themselves a late-career cash bonanza in foreign climes before intended retirement.
There is little doubt that if the Springboks had to assemble a Test side completely made up of players based abroad, it would be a greatly stronger combination on paper than those of either the All Blacks or Wallabies, so some perverse comfort can at least be taken from that.
But that still only demonstrates that in Super Rugby, which now accounts for some two thirds or more of the domestic season, genuine quality is being compromised across our franchises.
It is hard to disagree with the typically forthright sentiments of SuperSport pundit and former Bok coach Nick Mallett, expressed on Saturday night: “I think this Super Rugby campaign (for SA) has been very disappointing.
“We’re clutching at straws if we say the Stormers played well in the second half of the season or the Lions did better than expected.
“It’s been a poor season for SA Super Rugby teams ... we need to improve.
“Our rand is so much weaker than the Australian and New Zealand dollar which means we’ve got 300 players in Europe, earning money overseas – our big group of players from the ages of 23 to 29 who aren’t in the Springbok fold have gone abroad and this is weakening our franchises terribly.”
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