Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The South African in-house scrap in this year’s Super Rugby campaign may prove the most riveting and tensely-fought in several seasons.
It has the potential, especially as this is a World Cup year when general rugby interest cranks up anyway, to entice much-needed stronger support to stadiums for derbies, at very least, where away wins could be manna from heaven in 2019.
In a nutshell, and even without the luxury of perusing certain final squads for the competition yet, I have a mounting belief that three of the four strictly SA sides in the five-team domestic conference - the Lions, Sharks and Stormers - will have a nail-biting duel for supremacy.
The Bulls, too, seem better-equipped on paper to be more than just occasional nuisance value this time, and could act as serious party-spoilers at varying times against their group foes, who will again include the virtually Argentinean national-team Jaguares - not many South African franchises come away from Buenos Aires with wins these days, something vividly reflected in last year’s 0/4 outcome for our outfits there.
So just within itself, the SA conference has the potential to be roughly as competitive as the New Zealand one almost unfailingly is: that country tends to produce a minimum of four teams right up there near the finish, and even their customary odd-ones-out, the Blues, are being touted for better fortunes in 2019.
That doesn’t automatically mean, of course, that there is a heightened chance of a first non-NZ winner of the overall trophy in five years.
Track records overseas have to be taken into serious consideration, and there the New Zealand sides have continued to rule the roost over both the SA and Australian groups: there is no particularly compelling reason, alas, to submit that this season will be notably different.
So a closely-fought local conference would probably also not be very helpful in ensuring a favourable knockout seeding for at least one, obviously “premier” South African side this year.
That is one thing the Lions, losing tournament finalists for all of the last three seasons, largely did enjoy in all of 2016, 2017 and 2018 (the first three years of Super Rugby consisting of 18 teams).
Warren Whiteley’s men could be said to have genuinely romped to SA ordinary-season supremacy in each of the last two campaigns, particularly: they earned 10 points more than nearest compatriots the Sharks in 2018, and there was an even more gaping chasm in 2017 when the Lions banked 65 and next best Stormers were the proverbial million miles behind on 43.
A few weeks ago, I felt quite firmly that the Lions - now shorn of several stalwarts from the last few campaigns – were likely to see an end to their domestic mastery in the competition in 2019.
A couple of shrewd signings in the interim, however - men like Stephan Lewies (from the Sharks) and the strapping young tighthead from Newlands, Carlu Sadie, who had simply become third choice to two Springboks stalwarts in that fold - have served up some hope that this will not necessarily be the case.
That said, the Lions may well be run an awful lot closer by their domestic foes this season, and most likely – at least by my book - the hitherto under-achieving coastal-based Sharks and Stormers.
Both of those outfits ought to be driven by a pronounced sense of desperation, if you like, this year.
They had pretty respectable, notably youth-infused squads last season and, even if new faces haven’t come in dime-a-dozen in either Durban or Cape Town, where cash challenges remain a big impediment, both sleeping giants should produce better win percentages in 2019 if the “kids” in their ranks have matured sufficiently and major injuries stay away from their more established core players.
Frankly, it would be something bordering on a disgrace if, as Robert du Preez snr and Robbie Fleck have another crack respectively at proving their Super Rugby head-coaching worth, both do little more than repeat their humdrum 2018 showings.
Then, the Sharks ended eighth overall with a 7/16 win record (43.75 percent) and the Stormers were even further off the pace in 11th (6/16, or 37.50 percent).
This year seems, in many respects, like last chance for this particular generation of both squads, bearing in mind the likelihood that the completion of another World Cup cycle at year’s end will only see an acceleration of frontline South African stars being lured abroad.
Just for example, rumours swirl that Stormers pack blue-chippers Eben Etzebeth and Steven Kitshoff will bid farewell after 2019, while the Sharks may see all of their trio of Du Preez brothers, among others, seek new climes.
Yes, the Sharks and Stormers are going to throw the kitchen sink in Super Rugby 2019 and the Lions, as a consequence, are going to find themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to cling quite tenuously to their fairly long-time SA bragging rights - or lose their grip altogether.
Strap in ... even if there is no South African name eventually engraved on the Super Rugby trophy again, the conference will prove infinitely better viewing this year.
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