Cape Town – Cherish those already fading
memories of the last South African title success in Super Rugby 2010 ... there
may not be more to savour for a good while.
That was when, in the last tournament of
the pre-conference era, the Bulls earned their third trophy (then as the Super
14) by beating domestic rivals the Stormers in the showpiece at Orlando
This may sound like an overly pessimistic
prediction, but I find it desperately hard to envisage a further South African
overall triumph for at least as long on the road ahead as the five-year gap
since that last one.
Already bookies, who don’t get everything
right but also tend not to get too much wrong – it’s why they exist, really –
are lukewarm at best about a South African winner in the further-expanded 2016
competition with its cumbersome, complex format.
A couple of the betting sites I visited
this week suggest at least four New Zealand sides and two Australian outfits as
likelier winners of this year’s final before they are even prepared to
entertain the idea of a South African team – the Sharks and Stormers seem to
top the domestic pile for modest approval – going all the way to glory.
It doesn’t take the sharpest tool in the
shed to deduce that the ongoing elongation trend in the competition, which has
turned it into a “marathon” stretching deeper and deeper into the southern
winter (ah, remember the intense, strength-versus-strength appeal of Super 12
in lovely late summer and autumn?) works correspondingly less and less in
favour of SA franchises.
That is because squad depth becomes a
device of heightened importance now, and this country has already done itself
no favours by dispersing what remains of its proven talent in the competition
among a record six local franchises.
Seriously aggravating the situation, almost
needless to say, is the deflating exodus of top-notch players to Britain,
Ireland and France and the highly risky decision by others at times to
sacrifice an off-season in the sunshine and instead enter Super Rugby straight
off a Japanese sojourn and thus much more vulnerable to wear and tear – or
worse -- as the months drag on.
South Africa’s currency weakness is the
biggest bogey, of course, and I sometimes think local players must additionally
look at the turbulence in the corridors of power – with controversy or
instability stalking both the SARU CEO and president, and lingering
dilly-dallying over a Springbok coach appointment – and say to themselves: “I’m
Those of Bok quality forsaking our shores
can also do fairly confident in the knowledge that, unlike in resistant New Zealand,
for instance, their Test prospects will not necessarily be harmed by quitting
the Super Rugby environment, such is the arsenal of valuable national-team
talent now based abroad rather than in the land of their births.
speaking, I’d suggest the Sharks are the franchise best bucking the “depth
problem” trend this year, and for that reason may be the best SA hope -- though
they’ve never managed it before -- of title success.
Yet even there, their chances may well have
diminished by around 10 percent by the pre-season mishap, on an otherwise
pleasing mini-French tour, to captain and vital strategic factor at flyhalf Pat
On the brighter side, at least he returns
during the 2016 competition, whereas the Bulls have suffered a rather more severe
setback – Brendan Venter has described it as a “disaster” -- with Handre
Pollard’s all-year sidelining.
With men like Fourie du Preez, Francois
Hougaard, Ruan Pienaar, Johan Goosen, Morne and Frans Steyn and Jean de
Villiers well out of the Super Rugby picture and an X-factor youngster like
Damian de Allende currently injured, I reckon South African teams are broadly
going to suffer this year in the critical backline “brains” berths of Nos 9, 10
and 12 in Super Rugby, where rookies will be asked to step up in many cases.
It is also dispiriting to realise that more
and more SA players not yet at their primes (rather than the former instance of
slightly “past it” customers doing so) will bid farewell to Super Rugby after a
mere handful of precious seasons.
Someone like Steven Kitshoff (24), has
already left, as has the 23-year-old Paul Willemse, who might have done so much
to stabilise the Bulls’ resources at lock in this post-Matfield, Botha, Rossouw
and Van der Merwe era.
Meanwhile the Sharks’ Marcell Coetzee
recently revealed that he will switch to Ulster after the present campaign, and
it will also only be a matter of time, you fancy, before Bok second-row
colossus Eben Etzebeth – his Newlands contract ends this year – is lost to a
big-money Euro deal while still only in his mid-twenties.
The general trend in the years from 2011
onward has been for South Africa to produce one or two “competitive” teams
(several rank no-hopers, too) in terms of the Super Rugby title picture, yet
ones still not quite capable of sustaining a challenge all the way to the
happiest possible outcome.
My fear is that it won’t get any better
than that in the next few seasons ... and possibly only worsen, despite the
supposed (but still relatively minor?) advantage now of less arduous overseas
tour rosters for our half-dozen teams.
The merciless, accelerating player drain to
cash-flush northern pastures means that chickens are going to come home to
roost for us in Super Rugby.
Our sides will almost always find
themselves “rebuilding” rather than assembling all-conquering armies in the
manner of, say, the Crusaders, Bulls or Brumbies of yesteryear.
The scoreboard since 1996 reads: 13 NZ
Super Rugby titles, four by Aussie side, three SA (all Bulls). We hold the
wooden spoon, and only look more, rather than less, likely to keep the unwanted
Alternative, more upbeat points of view
highly welcome, of course, and let me add that I never completely write off
this country’s general ability to surprise when the chips appear stubbornly
Surprise, rather than expectation, is as
good as things will get.
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing