Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - All alight, please … the South African train is going no further.
Following the quarter-final dousing of the SA challenge in Super Rugby’s quarter-finals – the Bulls and Sharks at least getting there, but quickly elbowed out – here is my review of the 2019 competition from a purely home-based perspective.
Bulls’ late-season flourish
The overall SA challenge may have fizzled in the first round of the knockouts, but the assertive, defiant way the Bulls closed off their season was one, quite considerable silver lining.
While the Crusaders have continued to look pretty obvious top dogs tournament-wide, Pote Human’s charges bowed out extremely bravely in the quarter-finals to the Hurricanes after another gruelling slog through time zones and were looking just about as vibrant as any other team in the competition in the last few weeks.
The Bulls were deservedly, for what it is worth, the best-ending SA side in the local conference, and defied many critics’ (including this one’s) bleak thoughts by having a seriously credible four-match Australasian tour at a horribly late stage of the roster.
On the flip side though, from a future point of view in Pretoria, perhaps you’d better also read “The Ugly” a bit further below …
No SA team among truest deadbeats
There have been years in the past – remember the very darkest days of the Bulls, and the Cats? – where at least one South African team has been right down among the bottom-sawyers of the competition.
But one pleasing aspect about the ordinary-season overall table this year was that SA sides were absent from any of the bottom five berths in the 15-team competition.
The Stormers came in as the country’s lowest-placed outfit in 10th, but berths 11 to 15 were occupied by three Australian sides (Reds, Waratahs, Rebels), one from New Zealand (Blues) and the almost inevitable, soon-extinct Sunwolves from Japan.
Last year both the Stormers (11th) and Bulls (12th) ended in that particularly lowly zone.
‘Youth’ pipeline still pumping
Depth may be thinning unsatisfactorily at most of the SA franchises, but at least the country’s knack of consistently producing bright young things continued in 2019.
A breath of fresh air in a Springbok position that has been regularly troubling since the retirement of Fourie du Preez, for example – scrumhalf – came in the form of Stormers dynamo Herschel Jantjies, who looked a thinking, flair-filled No 9 with pleasing defensive courage for a lightweight figure, into the bargain.
The former Paul Roos pupil has clearly been noticed by Bok coach Rassie Erasmus, who included him in names for a looming conditioning camp.
Other relative novices to have come through strongly this season include Ruben van Heerden, Aphelele Fassi and Curwin Bosch (Sharks), Lions forwards like Carlu Sadie and Vincent Tshituka, the Bulls’ bustling open-sider Marco van Staden and another Stormers prospect in tough-as-teak, versatile loosie Jaco Coetzee.
*How easily Jaguares won the SA conference
Whether misguidedly or not, you would not have found TOO many takers on South African soil, at season’s outset, for the Argentinean side to conquer the conference (let alone look increasingly feasible candidates for the title).
But top it for the first time they did, after being runners-up to the Lions in the group in 2018.
Just as disconcerting and ego-ruffling in these parts of the world, the Jaguares clinched the conference with as much as a 10-point cushion over the next-best Bulls … certainly suggesting it may not be a flash in the pan.
Struggle of Stormers, Sharks for attacking gusto
It was a clear problem for them a year earlier, too -- so both coastal franchises really made no progress when it came to try-scoring (a not unimportant part of trying to beef your entertainment value/spectator appeal, let’s face it) in 2019.
This year the Newlands outfit were joint most try-shy with the basement Sunwolves after ordinary season with 34 from 16 games (well down down on last year’s still humble 46), while the Sharks (49 in 2018) also receded to 40 this time.
The situation may have played at least some part in sealing the departure of Robbie Fleck as Stormers head coach now, while Sharks counterpart Robert du Preez – most recently in an unedifying, insult-exchanging spat with the Durban media – holds on by a tenuous thread as things stand.
Lions’ slip from loftier levels
The one “constant” for the last three seasons ahead of 2019 was the Lions’ routine presence in the Super Rugby final: a commendable achievement each time, considering the deepening challenges facing SA teams these days.
This year, then, saw a relatively nasty correction to their fortunes, as they subsided to ninth overall and a whisker short of cracking the last eight.
Hardly helped by the stress-related break in mid-campaign required by head coach Swys de Bruin, the lingering saga surrounding defence coach Joey Mongalo and that indecent assault matter in Australia, inspirational captain Warren Whiteley’s catalogue of health setbacks and Elton Jantjies’ disciplinary flashpoints, the Jo’burgers could only manage a 50 percent win record this season.
There are some youngsters coming through, but it may be a fair while yet before they are ready to push anew for a berth in the showpiece …
SA failure to crack the semis
Just in itself, this was a painful, stats-don’t-lie bottom line to the SA season.
Having to watch the Jaguares carry the “flag” (not the Rainbow Nation one, of course) for the conference into the last four, along with two NZ teams and one Australian, will leave a bitter taste in many local mouths this weekend -- despite the inadvertent advantage of a wider pool of Springbok players now earning longer rests.
It was the first time since 2015 that no SA team has got as far as the semis, at least … the previous occasion having been in even more faraway 2003.
Plunging gates countrywide
As much as some of SuperSport’s commentators often did their damnedest to hype up “terrific atmosphere” or “a loyal crowd is building here” and the like, their deceptive flattery wouldn’t have fooled too many people during the 2019 campaign.
In a trend that really started several years ago, in fairness, certain nadirs were reached this season in attendance terms, perhaps more acutely in South Africa but also competition-wide.
Especially worrying was that once-coveted SA derbies continued to lose their appeal at the gate, not helped by several of them seeing our sides simply drag each other down in playing calibre.
Nor were teams’ pursuit of knockout berths any special reason to lure more people to our stadiums.
Most of the SA venues “welcomed” at various stages what could become a mushrooming new reality: crowd numbers in four figures rather than once customary five: a nightmare for bean counters and unions’ already much-publicised, beleaguered coffers.
Imminent player drain
Another Super Rugby out of the way … so heralding an associated, crippling exodus of quality personnel to foreign climes.
It will be no different in 2019, and probably worse.
Just take the Bulls as a prime example: seemingly on the cusp of a brave, exciting new era, they will instead be grotesquely impeded next year by the loss of three grunt-laden international locks (Messrs De Jager, Snyman and Jenkins), loose forwards Duane Vermeulen and Hanro Liebenberg, the almost certain final retirement of livewire hooker Schalk Brits, and departure also of massively influential, prolific points-scoring flyhalf Handre Pollard.
There could be others from Pretoria -- and expect plenty of farewell winces at the country’s other franchises, too.
Back to that bloody drawing board …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing