SA’s backs are still try-shy
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Human steam-roller Willem Alberts
who, let’s face it, generally prefers just one way to the line, currently heads the South African try scorers in Super Rugby with a less than princely three.
The hefty Sharks blindside flank got to his third of the season, and his team’s lone touchdown on the day, in their first setback of the season at the hands of the Bulls at Loftus on Saturday.
And yes, it was another of his short-range, unsubtle, route-one busts over the whitewash.
It kind of sums up the collective struggle by South African teams to manufacture scoring opportunities for the best intended finishers in rugby: outside backs.
Alberts may lead the SA “charge” for tries thus far, but even he is a long way behind the overall leader at this point, the Waratahs’ blistering fullback Israel Folau, who sports eight.
Behind Folau, in joint second with four tries each, comes a pair of Brumbies, Robbie Coleman and Jesse Mogg, plus the Hurricanes’ slippery flyhalf Beauden Barrett.
Early indications are that last season’s pattern may repeat itself.
Again then, South Africans failed to feature near the top of the try-scoring chart: the Blues’ Tongan express wing Frank Halai headed the 2013 pack with 10, and the closest South Africans, in joint eighth, were Cheetahs back-three talisman Willie le Roux and Kings flanker Wimpie van der Walt (six apiece).
For team tries thus far in 2014, the SA challenge is also less than inspiring: we lie bottom of the pile with 51 achieved between the five franchises, eight shy of the second-placed New Zealanders (59) and as many as 14 short of the pace-setting Aussies (65).
No South African side cracks the top five, despite the Sharks still occupying top log position overall, with the Blues notching 17 dot-downs, the Hurricanes and Waratahs 16, and Force and Brumbies 14 each.
The Sharks and Cheetahs are best SA flag-bearers thus far with 13 each, and the Stormers really drag the whole, local conference cause down by only dotting seven times from their five games to lie 14th out of the 15 tournament teams as things stand (the Crusaders a little surprisingly bring up the rear on six tries).
Scoring tries freely is not, of course, the be-all and end-all of rugby success: look at the table positions of the Blues (eighth) and Hurricanes (12th) for proof of that; sometimes teams crossing the line with some ease are guilty of lax defending at the other end of the park and leak plenty of tries themselves.
But it is also difficult to escape a suspicion that several SA teams could do with a bit more ball-in-hand urgency and fluency as the country seeks its first Super Rugby title since the change to the conference system in 2011.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing