Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - It’s certainly too early to
know whether these are the seeds of a genuine revival, or merely a false dawn.
But the first two rounds of Super Rugby
2017 have, broadly speaking, seen a marked change for the better in desire,
tempo and skill levels by South African teams.
That is no special consolation to a
once-mighty domestic franchise like the Bulls, for example, who are the only
team from our shores winless after a brace of matches.
But even they appear to have bought into a
new drive toward improved fluidity and constructive play, and remember that
they opened their account with relative toughies on paper - away against the
Stormers and Cheetahs.
Experiencing a bye next weekend, the
three-time champions have a fortnight to work on their consistency over the
course of 80 minutes (they’ve had promising fightback spells in both Cape Town
and Bloemfontein) before their first Loftus game against the Sunwolves which
should see them comfortably, with respect to the pretty flimsy Japanese outfit,
open their win account.
Apart from the Bulls, however, the second
weekend was a rosy one results-wise for the other SA teams.
The Cheetahs will be highly chuffed with
their deserved derby triumph in an often breathless affair despite the heavy
Free State Stadium surface, whilst all of the Sharks (over the Brumbies), Lions
(Waratahs), Stormers (Jaguares) and Kings (Sunwolves) prevailed against
It was the first time, in an
ordinary-season round featuring at least three SA fixtures against foreign
opponents, in which our sides have pulled off a “clean sweep” in that respect
since the corresponding round two, coincidentally, of the 2016 competition.
On that occasion, the Lions earned a
particularly rousing 36-32 victory over the Chiefs away, while the Bulls
(45-25) and Sharks (19-15) banked home wins against the Rebels and Jaguares
With the notable exception of the Lions,
who marched confidently onward and into the final, the rest of the SA challenge
rather fizzled last year - ahead of a woefully traumatic international season
for the Springboks.
So early signals from Super Rugby have to
be treated with extreme caution.
That said, the important entertainment
value and gumption provided by the majority of South African teams over the
past two weekends already seems a discernible notch higher than witnessed for
much of last year in the competition.
There was also, I would argue, further
encouraging weight on Saturday to Bok legend Victor Matfield’s theory on a
SuperSport chat show a few days ago that collective stamina and conditioning
levels of South African players have risen.
Those are, naturally, key considerations if
SA sides are, indeed, strongly intent on playing a more zesty, daring
ball-in-hand game henceforth, putting them rather more in line with the
standard-bearing New Zealand franchises.
It is also not the worst thing in the world
that wins against teams from abroad can be achieved even while certain flaws
The Lions, for example, were fantastic
value against the Waratahs on attack, pretty much a la their 2016 campaign, but
will be acutely aware that it is not that desirable to register eight tries
while leaking five yourselves, as they did in Johannesburg.
While their mauling play was a pleasing
supplementary feature to their wider offensive thrust, coach Johan Ackermann is
likely to address defence and exit strategy very spiritedly over the next few
Meanwhile the Stormers had something of a comeuppance - coach Robbie Fleck implied as much, seeing some benefits - against the
Jaguares after the lavish praise they had earned for the dismantling of the
Bulls a week earlier.
They had to scrap mightily hard to get over
the line against the Pumas-laden Argentineans, and were perhaps fortunate that
an old Achilles heel - poor discipline, resulting in costly cards - struck the
visitors at crucial times in the contest.
Still, the job was done, warts and all, and
maybe the tightness of the score-line was as much a reflection of all-round
improvement on the part of the Jaguares as it was due to the Stormers’
shortcomings in some respects.
The Sharks required a bit of combined magic
from Curwin Bosch and Lukhanyo Am, after the siren, to snatch victory in the
Brumbies’ den ... but whoever complained about a burst of genius deciding a tense
It is also not easy for any visiting team to leave Canberra victorious, so the Sharks will be
mentally buoyed now after their narrow loss to the Reds one game earlier; their
Aussie tour ended up being a five-points-from-10 affair, which is a lot better
than a kick in the chops.
Of course the common denominator from the
first two rounds is that no South African outfit have yet tested themselves
against opponents from New Zealand, so any glee about mass improvement should
be reserved until (at least!) round five, when the first bilateral scrap takes
place - Blues versus Bulls in Albany.
But let’s give praise where it is due:
several of our sides already look sprightlier than many of us would have
imagined in pre-season ...
round of fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday, March 10
Chiefs v Hurricanes - 08:35
Brumbies v Force - 10:45
Saturday, March 11
Blues v Highlanders - 08:35
Crusaders - 10:45
Kings v Stormers - 15:05
Cheetahs v Sunwolves - 17:15
v Waratahs - 19:30
Jaguares v Lions - 21:40
Byes: Bulls, Rebels
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing