Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Played 12, won eight, lost four … it looks
shipshape enough on paper, doesn’t it?
That is the scorecard in favour of South African teams over
overseas-based opponents thus far in Super Rugby 2017.
But that acceptable win record of 66.6 percent is skewed by
one rather pertinent fact: none of our franchises have yet run into a New
It’s not exactly a closely-guarded secret that teams from
that country, which boasts the title-winners in four of the last five years,
are hotly, collectively tipped to dominate once again this year – and early
signs from this year’s competition only seem to enhance the likelihood.
That goes a long way to explaining why the South African
challenge against teams from outside our borders looks more than credible at
this point, approaching round five.
Three of those eight wins banked, it mustn’t be forgotten,
have been against the humble Sunwolves from Japan – and even then, at least two
weren’t convincing at all, by the Cheetahs and Bulls despite their home
advantage in each instance. (Ironically the most clear-cut victory against them
was arguably achieved by the much-maligned Kings, who prevailed 37-23 in
On a more positive note, the Lions have had very commanding
wins at Emirates Airline Park over both the Waratahs and Reds from Australia, and
the Sharks did bag one decent scalp on their short tour Down Under by pipping
the Brumbies with a late try.
So the really genuine test of whether South African rugby
has made any northward progress at all since the general annus horribilis of
2016 now looms large: the Bulls are first “lab rats” against NZ foes, if you
like, when they take up arms against the Blues at Albany on Saturday (08:35).
For the little the 18-team overall table really matters
these days, you would roughly brand it a mid-table sort of clash, as the effectively
eighth-placed Blues (one win from four) entertain opponents in 12th
(one win from three).
But when you consider that the once-mighty, Auckland-based
side thrashed the Rebels in Melbourne first up, and then lost successive, taxing
derbies against compatriots the Chiefs, Highlanders and Crusaders, you still
get a powerful sense that they will be fairly clear favourites against the
Bulls despite their mere 25 percent win record at this stage.
With the Bulls and Force (again at home) on their most
immediate roster, the Blues will believe that significant improvement of their
position is just a couple of wins away.
It will also be reasonably ominous, of course, if the
currently second lowest-riding New Zealand team see off the three-time past
champions convincingly, given that the next three weekends after that see the
tournament pace-setting Chiefs (four wins from four, and a healthy 19 points) face
three SA outfits in a row.
First come the Bulls, continuing their trek through the Land
of the Long White Cloud, on April Fools’ Day (psst, fine occasion for a major
Bulls upset?), and then the Mooloo Men travel themselves to South Africa, for
successive matches against the Stormers and Cheetahs.
The Newlands match on April 8 may give us the best
indication yet of whether the gap in standards between NZ and SA rugby remains
painfully wide, or has narrowed at least a little, given the strong early
showings of both sides.
It may well be an appealing meeting of unbeaten units, if
the Chiefs (bye this weekend) have beaten the Bulls ahead of it and the
Stormers emerge victorious against the Sunwolves in the latest round
(Singapore) and then Cheetahs (Cape Town) respectively.
If nothing else, there should be a mightily good chance that
the Stormers improve a great deal in scoreboard terms on what turned into their
most embarrassing ordeal of the 2016 season – that 60-21 hiding at home to the
Chiefs in a quarter-final.
They leaked eight tries on that unpalatable occasion as the
Chiefs ran them off their feet - confirming, among other things, the superior
conditioning of New Zealand players in many instances.
That particular gap may well have closed: most SA sides do
seem in broadly better nick physically and stamina-wise than in 2016.
Just around the corner is the examination of whether our
rugby skills and gumption levels are back on the mend as well …
Looming bilateral SA
v NZ matches in Super Rugby, to end of April (home teams first):
Saturday: Blues v Bulls
April 1: Chiefs v Bulls
April 8: Stormers v Chiefs
April 15: Cheetahs v Chiefs
April 22: Crusaders v Stormers
April 28: Highlanders v Stormers
April 29: Cheetahs v Crusaders
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