S15: Better SA year looms

    2014-10-28 22:18
    Super Rugby trophy (Getty Images)

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – They say you should be wary of hyping South African chances in Super Rugby by basing your thoughts too heavily around the all-domestic Currie Cup preceding it.

    Point noted, of course ... but that’s not going to stop me from suggesting, with some conviction, that 2015 will be a considerably better season in the SANZAR competition for the collective SA challenge.

    Earlier this year our country suffered the rare indignity of only one team, the Sharks, ending in the top half of the overall table (in third, which meant they just missed out on a vital home semi-final and duly bombed out in their away one).

    The Bulls were ninth, Stormers 11th, Lions 12th and Cheetahs 14th ... in short, a very poor return.

     But this nadir won’t be repeated next year: my chipper long-range forecast is at least three teams (Sharks, Stormers, Bulls) being top-half finishers, one of them quite feasibly nailing down a home semi, and the Lions being dark horses, albeit only that, for the top eight as well.

    Only the Cheetahs, ravaged by a too-weighty exodus of hardened customers at that level, may be lame ducks of note in what will be the last year of the current format, although in Bloemfontein they do have the capacity to surprise from time to time when the dice seems loaded against them.

    The Currie Cup, I concede, is not massively relevant to what will happen in the superior, more cosmopolitan competition a few months up the drag, but I am dragging it in because of my belief that, in at least the instances of impressive 2014 finalists Western Province and the Lions, the progressive brands of rugby they displayed locally this year will spill over positively into their Super Rugby campaigns.

    The Lions may still be found a little wanting for depth in the more demanding multi-national landscape, but they have three attributes not to be sniffed at: a good, blossoming coach in Johan Ackermann, inspiring captain in Warren Whiteley and all-round wonderful team ethic.

    They have few true superstars and maybe that is no bad thing ... although one danger ahead of Super Rugby 2015 is the possibility of audacious poaching by bigger fish of some of their resources. Just for example, it must be interesting the hell out of certain rivals that they sport two of that rare breed, quality tightheads, in Ruan Dreyer and new Springbok Julian Redelinghuys.

    But despite their agonising near-miss in the Currie Cup final, a winning culture is slowly seeping into Ellis Park if you put together their strong round-robin display and barnstorming semi, plus all-wins record in their last three games of the earlier 2014 Super Rugby campaign.

    Victorious WP, meanwhile, now switching back to Stormers mode, have particularly transformed their play in recent months, having found a happy medium between their once too-obsessive defence and a massively renewed thrill factor with ball in hand.

    Infused by top-line Boks like Duane Vermeulen, Jean de Villiers and Eben Etzebeth (the last-named player will be banking on a first injury-free Super Rugby campaign in three) and quite enormous depth in certain areas like loose forward, it is virtually impossible to envisage the Capetonians ending 11th again – and don’t be surprised if bookies start installing them as last-four material.

    As for the Sharks, despite the Jake White upheaval and sudden new tutelage to be provided by Gary Gold and Brendan Venter, they ought to remain simply too well-stocked in squad personnel terms to fail to make the playoffs cut in 2015.

    Their Currie Cup pack looked a tad short of muscle, but when you restore surnames like Du Plessis (times two), Mtawarira, Alberts, Coetzee, and the hopefully fully fit-again Pieter-Steph du Toit ... voila, problem solved?

    Turning to the Bulls, still this country’s only recipients of Super Rugby titles, and they will similarly have enough heavyweight names added to the Loftus mix soon to bury their Currie Cup limitations with some stealth.

    Certainly if you put together a quick, draft Bulls first team in your head for Super Rugby purposes next year you may surprise yourself – whether partial to them or not – with how steely it could look.

    Not in the Currie Cup but back for the looming bigger deal will be influential players like Flip van der Merwe, Victor Matfield, Arno Botha, Jan Serfontein and Francois Hougaard.

    They will also be sporting outstanding new hooker recruit Adriaan Strauss, who will boost their pretty weak breakdown game, among other things, and have no scarcity of Boks around him in the front row at scrum time.

    With a bit of luck coach Frans Ludeke will not be so short-sighted as to have Handré Pollard as anything but his first-choice, playmaking flyhalf, and generally be more open to a rounded game by the Bulls rather than talking perpetually of “basics” and “systems” and frittering away ball through 50-50 heaves into the skies.

    Ludeke’s a sound, proven coach who has won Super Rugby twice, but his philosophy has arguably stagnated and he needs to tweak it. He must, in the words of critic and former All Blacks coach John Mitchell, give some of his backline players much-needed “oxygen” ... and if he does that the Bulls are not incapable of revisiting past glories.

    You may think this broadly upbeat forecast, particularly as far as the Stormers and Lions are concerned, is coming through irrationally Currie Cup-tinted glasses, and I am also fully aware of the risks of making brazen predictions before franchise squads have even been officially named.

    But I’m not budging on my glass-half-full stance; how about we talk again after Super Rugby 2015?

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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