Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - To brand it a godforsaken landscape would be taking things too far ... at least for the time being.
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Super Rugby 2020 still has its share of indisputably brilliant players: who doesn’t enjoy a dose of trickery from Richie Mo’unga or Damian McKenzie, the emerging counter-attacking majesty and blistering speed of Aphelele Fassi, or the trojan work-rate and commitment, week after week, of World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit?
But it is also increasingly difficult to escape a feeling that too many teams across the unwieldy competition are having to flesh out their sides (both the XV and broader match-day 23s), with relative journeymen or rank rookies these days - a hallmark that must have at least some impact on alarmingly declining attendances at many venues.
Television viewership is challenged - to put it diplomatically - too, with Australia thought to be wrestling that issue more grimly than other SANZAAR countries involved in Super Rugby.
Just in a South African context, some of the quartet of participating franchises have the look of little more than Currie Cup-strength sides of, say, seven or eight years ago, slightly before the exodus of players to irresistible deals on the other side of the equator became as crippling as it has more recently.
But it is no longer just this country which haemorrhages quality personnel, to a devastating extent, to northern club climes.
The phenomenon has greatly accelerated now in Australia ... and the competition’s so often premier nation of New Zealand is starting to feel the impact as well, sparking a greater willingness by administrators there to allow sabbatical-type stints by players they still value for lengthier shelf life within both the domestic and All Black set-ups.
For several years already, Super Rugby has seen an inevitable flight of once loyal, but increasingly long-in-the-tooth players to well-paid, twilight deals in the UK, Europe or Japan: that is more understandable, and easier to stomach.
This year, for example, high-profile thirtysomethings to have quit the tournament include Duane Vermeulen, Tendai Mtawarira, Coenie Oosthuizen, Lionel Mapoe (from SA), David Pocock, Sam Carter, Christian Lealiifano, Will Genia, Quade Cooper, Scott Higginbotham, Sekope Kepu and Brendan Foley (Australia) and New Zealanders like Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Matt Todd, Kieran Read and Ryan Crotty.
But the real emergency for modern Super Rugby, I would submit, is the extent of still-prime players now leaving it.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate that point is to pick a team (I offer the luxury of an alternative choice in each berth, too) just from players who aren’t yet 30, but who bade farewell to the competition ahead of the 2020 version.
While hardly claiming to be the most precise or scientific, here is a suggested XV from those falling into the category, only demonstrating the difficulty in many cases of Super Rugby coaches filling the gaps effectively in this year’s event:
15: Melani Nanai (age 26)
The versatile Samoan back-three customer with a healthy eye for the try-line left the Blues after five years’ service to hook up with Worcester Warriors in England.
Alternative: Jason Emery, 26, Munakata Sanix Blues (ex-Sunwolves)
14: Waisake Naholo (28)
This freight-train right wing, who has earned 26 All Black caps, was a key attack factor for the Highlanders over the course of five years, and bagged 45 tries in their colours, but now plays for London Irish.
Alternative: Ruan Combrinck, 29, Stade Francais (ex-Lions)
13: Jesse Kriel (26)
Once a fairly regular first-choice for the Springboks, and with time still on his side to fight for a recall to that status, the muscular outside centre had been on the Bulls’ books since 2014, until he opted to join Japanese outfit Canon Eagles.
Alternative: Harold Vorster, 26, Panasonic Wild Knights (ex-Lions)
12: Damian de Allende (28)
An increasingly influential figure in the Springboks’ ascension to the RWC 2019 crown, De Allende gave some seven years of service to the Stormers before joining the mass migration to Japan, and Panasonic Wild Knights.
Alternative: Samu Kerevi, 26, Suntory Sungoliath (ex-Reds)
11: Nehe Milner-Skudder (29)
Now on the traditionally star-studded books of cash-flush Toulon in France, Milner-Skudder was previously a human torpedo for the Hurricanes, and sports 13 All Black appearances.
Alternative: Curtis Rona, 27, London Irish (ex-Waratahs)
10: Handre Pollard (25)
One of the most damaging losses to the SA Super Rugby scene; Pollard might not even have quite hit his prime yet. But the physical, first-choice Bok flyhalf was part of the Loftus furniture since youthful beginnings in 2013, before joining Montpellier a few months ago.
Alternative: Jack Debreczeni, 26, Red Dolphins (ex-Chiefs)
9: Yutaka Nagare (27)
Nagare was Japan’s premier choice at scrumhalf when they bravely bowed out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage to the Springboks, but he is among a host of home-based customers to have quit the soon-to-die Sunwolves now.
Alternative: Nic Groom, 29, Edinburgh (ex-Lions)
8: Liam Squire (28)
The versatile forward with 23 caps for New Zealand played six years of Super Rugby for the Chiefs and Highlanders but is now stationed with Red Hurricanes in Japan.
Alternative: Dan du Preez, 24, Sale (ex-Sharks)
7: Pablo Matera (26)
Arguably Argentina’s best current rugby player, the abrasive flanker is a cruel sacrifice by the Jaguares in their quest to win the SA conference for a second time on the trot this year. At close to the peak of his career, he has moved to Stade Francais.
Alternative: Jean-Luc du Preez, 24, Sale (ex-Sharks)
6: Kwagga Smith (26)
The popular, sometimes Sevens star and traditionally one of the liveliest open-siders or occasional No 8s at Super Rugby level is absent from the Lions this season while he undertakes obligations for Yamaha Jubilo in the Japanese Top League.
Alternative: Luke Whitelock, 29, Pau (ex-Highlanders)
5: Brodie Retallick (28)
The hulking, highly revered All Black second-rower with 81 caps still has plenty of gas in the tank … but is now on a two-year “sabbatical” from both Super Rugby and the NZ Test side while he represents Kobelco Steelers in the less demanding climes of Japan.
Alternative: Lood de Jager, 27, Sale (ex-Bulls)
4: Eben Etzebeth (28)
Cash-strapped WP Rugby did extremely well, really, to keep the big Bok lock meanie on the Stormers’ books for all of eight seasons … but succumbed to the inevitable at the end of last season as he was snapped up by ever-ambitious Toulon.
Alternative: RG Snyman, 25, Honda Heat (ex-Bulls)
3: Jeff Toomaga-Allen (29)
The tighthead, who sports one Test appearance for the All Blacks, was a 115-cap loyal servant for many years of the Hurricanes, but he now bolsters the ranks of Wasps in England.
Alternative: Sam Talakai, 28, Suntory Sungoliath (ex-Rebels)
2: Malcolm Marx (25)
Just another juggernaut name (one of the planet’s premier hookers) to have taken a break – though at least only for this season - from Lions duty in Super Rugby to have a well-paid stint in Japan with Shining Arcs.
Alternative: Tolu Latu, 26, Stade Francais (ex-Waratahs)
1: Santiago Garcia Botta (27)
The Jaguares’ front-row stocks took a hit this year with the departure of the Pumas loosehead (31 caps) to Harlequins in London.
Alternative: Danie Mienie, 28, Rovigo (ex-Lions)
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