Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - It’s important to avoid falling into a naïve trap of reading too much into a pre-season festival ... especially in the challenging climate of mid-January.
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But if the second edition of Super Hero Sunday, featuring all four South African franchises in Super Rugby, was anything to go by, the country’s chances of being competitive in it this year look a touch better than some of us might have imagined.
While almost all of the quartet have been rocked by an unusually large stock of defections abroad since the 2019 tournament, that drawback is clearly counterbalanced by the raised sense of domestic feel-good factor and resurgent energy after the Springboks’ inspiring triumph a little against the odds at the World Cup in Japan less than three months ago.
The FNB Stadium event - which drew a decent enough crowd despite not being as jam-packed as last year’s inaugural one at smaller-capacity Cape Town Stadium - also provided a timely reminder that South Africa remains a ceaseless treasure trove of bright young talent, whatever the degrees of rawness at play.
Relatively little relevance needs to be attached to the fact that the Bulls squeezed out neighbours the Lions 40-35 (and by six tries to five) in a see-sawing spectacle, and that in the earlier tussle the Stormers edged the Sharks 21-19 in a similarly well-matched, three-tries-all affair.
Put it this way: losing coaches Ivan van Rooyen and Sean Everitt respectively will not have a sleepless night about their results, and nor will victorious Pote Human and John Dobson go overboard in any glory-basking.
There was a certain, entirely predictable artificiality to proceedings that you won’t see in just under a fortnight’s time when the Sharks host the Bulls in a competition-opening Friday night derby, the Stormers face the Hurricanes in a toughie at Newlands a day later and the Lions, even more dauntingly, fly long-haul to Buenos Aires to encounter 2019 conference winners and eventual losing finalists the Jaguares.
For one thing, all four starting line-ups fielded on Sunday could well sport several differences when Super Rugby-proper kicks in, while the relaxed policy over substitutions meant the Bulls, especially, swapped some three-quarters of their XV for the outset of the second half against the Lions.
But all that didn’t dampen too much a discernible sense that the country’s first-class professionals are generally more revved-up, both physically and mentally, than would normally be the case for the start of a new season.
Yes, it’s amazing what a goose-pimply parading of that old Webb Ellis Cup can do to stir competitive juices for people wanting to be a part of such nirvana in the not terribly distant future – either as repeat participants, or newer faces fiercely desiring a piece of the action at the game’s highest level.
The collective level of intensity on the two-game Super Hero bill just seemed superior to last year’s, a good thing considering how the earliest-ever start to Super Rugby this year has badly curtailed the length of any pre-season activity – something that applies to all 15 teams, of course.
More or less across the board, the defences seemed quicker to amass themselves than had been the case in the Mother City inaugural event last February, the tackles firmer and scrambles more purposeful.
That didn’t mean lapses in alignment were entirely absent; there is much fine-tuning to do over the course of the next two weeks.
But another notable feature - perhaps not un-associated with the fact that three of the SA teams sport brand-new coaches? - was the willingness, and clearly by association licence, to “play situations” ... it led to several eye-catching tries being manufactured from where nothing seemed immediately on, and even from a long way back on the park.
I felt the Sharks, especially, appeared seriously set on toning down their lengthy reputation as uncompromising bashers and slow, rumbling phase-builders.
Why wouldn’t you, too, when you have a back three (and backline as a whole, really) as lethal as the one they proudly began with on Sunday: the ever-improving, long-striding Aphelele Fassi at fullback, and the differing-in-style but still hugely predatory Makazole Mapimpi and S’bu Nkosi on the wings?
Mapimpi, of course, was one of the most profound improvers as the march toward the World Cup title gathered pace for the Boks, and his hunger and sharpness on Sunday was mostly emulated by RWC squad colleagues countrywide who had a gallop of varying lengths at FNB Stadium.
There were times in both matches when certain attack-minded initiatives got that bit too “cute”, leading to cunning reading of intentions by opposition players who intercepted and streaked away for tries at the other end - Duncan Matthews of the Lions and the Stormers’ sprightly Bok scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies cashed in nicely, for example.
But the majority of spectators would have left The Calabash feeling they’d got their money’s worth in entertainment value, and that they’d witnessed a cranked-up commitment to genuinely “playing rugby”.
A taste of things to come in the next few months, hopefully?*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing