Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The Sharks have already been in a busy recruitment mode for next year’s Super Rugby tournament ... and they look as though they may need all the quality and depth they can muster.
Theirs, you see, is perhaps the most taxing roster of all four South African-specific sides in the 2020 draw revealed by SANZAAR on Tuesday.
By contrast the Bulls, last year’s best-performing SA outfit as they ended second in the conference to the Jaguares and reached the quarter-finals, have fewer reasons than most compatriots for grumbling about their itinerary treatment in a year where the competition begins markedly early - January 31 - but runs uninterrupted to a final on June 20 (the mid-year “Test window” is now held back to July).
The Lions and Stormers, arguably, fall somewhere in between for degrees of difficulty.
Here is my brief assessment of the rosters for all five SA conference participants, in order of finish last season:
Considering that their away games simply within the conference are also abroad, their draw seldom differs that much: it is always uniquely demanding on them. That said, after four years in Super Rugby, they’re getting used to it and won the group with surprising comfort (by 10 points) in 2019. They effectively have three “tours” next year, including what could be a pivotal one in South Africa reasonably early on, playing all of the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks in a row. Their itinerary is book-ended by the Lions, who play them in Buenos Aires in round one … and then in Johannesburg in the final one. Kicking off with three home matches is a good chance for early momentum.
Matches: Lions (h), Hurricanes (h), Reds (h), Stormers (a), Bulls (a), Sharks (a), Highlanders (h), Stormers (h), bye, Rebels (h), Brumbies (a), Blues (a), Crusaders (a), Sunwolves (a), Sharks (h), bye, Bulls (h), Lions (a).
Don’t play: Chiefs, Waratahs.
Away derbies against the two SA coastal sides is a stiff requirement straight away … but then it really doesn’t get too bad at all for the Bulls. Yes, the first bye is a little earlier than they might like, but there’s a nice little sequence of Loftus games straight after it, preceding the four-match Australasian slog. Of the last seven fixtures for Pote Human’s charges, six are in South Africa with just one further long-haul expedition, to the Jaguares. Closing their ordinary season at home to arch-rivals the Stormers, in a possibly KOs-relevant tussle, holds much appeal. But why else is the Bulls’ roster kind? Simple … they dodge the defending champion Crusaders, who walloped them 45-13 in Pretoria earlier this year.
Matches: Sharks (a), Stormers (a), bye, Blues (h), Jaguares (h), Highlanders (h), Reds (a), Waratahs (a), Hurricanes (a), Chiefs (a), Lions (h), bye, Sunwolves (h), Brumbies (h), Lions (a), Sharks (h), Jaguares (a), Stormers (h).
Don’t play: Crusaders, Rebels.
Sean Everitt goes in at the deep end for his maiden season as Super Rugby-level head coach … and brrr, the water’s pretty chilly in roster terms, too. The Sharks open, at least, at home to the Bulls in a novel January 31 tussle - just imagine the humidity level, even if it is a Friday night game. Mind you, they then dodge Durban’s weather-related perils for a further four weeks … but only because they tackle a tour across the Indian Ocean, which carries the risk of a back-foot start to their campaign. So they may need to prosper greatly in a “middle” period back in SA, before a stinker of a finish. Not only do they play their last three matches against the Jaguares and Bulls (both away) and then the legendary ‘Saders at home, but the final round is a highly inconvenient bye for them. In other words, they need to have closed the deal, if they can, on finals-series qualification ahead of it. Know what’s also ominous? No clashes against the Blues or Sunwolves, respectively the worst-faring sides in the 2019 NZ and Aussie conferences.
Matches: Bulls (h), Highlanders (a), Hurricanes (a), Rebels (a), Reds (a), Jaguares (h), Stormers (h), Chiefs (h), bye, Lions (a), Waratahs (h), Stormers (a), Brumbies (h), Lions (h), Jaguares (a), Bulls (a), Crusaders (h), bye.
Don’t play: Blues, Sunwolves.
Warren Whiteley’s men (hopefully the inspirational captain is fit after his nightmarish 2019?) face a tricky opener in Buenos Aires. Can they catch the Jaguares cold, as they did – winning 25-16 -- in exactly the same round-one scenario for them last season? The fear of their fans may be that lightning ought not to strike twice. Their byes aren’t too badly spaced, including one immediately ahead of their main overseas tour, and there’s a very solid run of nine matches all in SA climes as a “final straight” for the Lions. That said, it will include difficult, short-range derby travels to all of the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers. Nor do the Crusaders, late-season visitors to the Big Smoke, have any fears at all of high altitude these days.
Matches: Jaguares (a), Reds (h), Stormers (h), bye, Waratahs (a), Rebels (a), Blues (a), Highlanders (a), Chiefs (h), Sharks (h), Bulls (a), Sunwolves (h), bye, Sharks (a), Bulls (h), Crusaders (h), Stormers (a), Jaguares (h).
Don’t play: Hurricanes, Brumbies.
On the positive side, the Capetonians have an opportunity to amass a head of steam early on, given the generosity of Newlands dates, which can be influential in ensuring important healthy gate receipts all season long (it never helps Super Rugby teams to become lame-looking ducks too early). But new mastermind John Dobson will also be nervous about a relatively late-departure main overseas leg, which includes a formidable trio of assignments in a row against the Chiefs and Crusaders in NZ and Brumbies (last season’s Aussie conference champs). Still, if they happen to be labouring a bit in that period, there’s the opportunity to strike for a stabilising result against the Sunwolves before returning to local shores.
Matches: Hurricanes (h), Bulls (h), Lions (a), Jaguares (h), Blues (h), bye, Sharks (a), Jaguares (a), Rebels (h), Waratahs (h), bye, Sharks (h), Chiefs (a), Crusaders (a), Brumbies (a), Sunwolves (a), Lions (h), Bulls (a).
Don’t play: Highlanders, Reds.
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