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
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
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
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