Johannesburg - The final rounds of the league phase of Super Rugby provided
an interesting snap-shot of where the respective South African teams are as
they look ahead to 2019 and what should be a year of no excuses.
According to SuperSport.com, everybody but the Lions is in a rebuilding phase and is
being process driven. Sometimes you wonder whether with all the talk about
three year plans, and this season just being a part of the process of getting
there and not the culmination of it, fans shouldn’t be offered half price
tickets with the message: “You’ll pay full price again when we are the full
Stormers assistant coach Paul Feeney though said it a few
weeks ago when defending his head coach Robbie Fleck - the third year is when
you have full guns blazing. That means that failure next year can’t be
sugar-coated. You either get it right or you admit failure. It’s the go big or
go home year, and not just for the Stormers, but for the Sharks too.
It will also be a year where a lot more should be expected
of the Bulls too. This season they got away with a record, well at least they
should have, that reads six wins in 16 starts because for them it really was
the start of the process and it should be obvious to anyone that has watched
them play that they have reinvented the way they play and with that has come a
reinvention of their culture too.
It has been pointed out that the Stormers and Bulls both
ended with the same amount of wins but comparing those two franchises and their
respective coaching teams is not comparing apples with apples. Of all the South
African coaches, it was John Mitchell at the Bulls who had the most to do at
the start of this season.
Perhaps the numbers are similar now, but the Bulls’ playing
style, their commitment and with it their watchability, is completely different
to what it was this time last year. Back then it was hard to decide what their
identity was. Now it’s crystal clear what they are committed to, and it is
should also be obvious that they are being properly coached.
That wasn’t so clear 12 months ago, when the Bulls were
ending the 2018 term by struggling at home against the Southern Kings. Mention
of the Kings also elicits another point - the competition was harder this year.
The Kings did play above themselves last year and the Cheetahs were
occasionally a factor at home, but the loss of the Kings, Cheetahs and Western
Force meant there were fewer easier games in 2019.
The Bulls, like the other local teams, can look back on a
season of might have beens. Closing out games should be part of their learning
process and once that is complete they shouldn’t be blowing games like they did
in Hamilton on their Australasian tour. To refresh memories, the Bulls played
excellent rugby to take a good lead but then the Chiefs regrouped and came back
The Bulls did win one game against New Zealand opposition at
Loftus, meaning the opener against the Hurricanes, and that will be remembered
as one of the upsets of the season, but they should have won one other - they
did everything but beat the Highlanders, who somehow survived to win a tight
contest through a combination of poor Bulls finishing and some dubious
Had that game gone their way, plus one or two other close
ones, they would have ended with eight or nine wins, in other words much closer
to the conference topping Lions. Not that such a finish would be a reflection
of where the Bulls are. The delay in Mitchell signing his offered contract
extension might come down to him waiting to find out just how much clout the
Bulls will have in the player market going forward.
The Bulls’ final game against the Lions, and the second half
of their season in general, underlined their biggest problem at this point,
which is lack of playing depth, particularly at forward, where the injuries to
Lood de Jager, Trevor Nyakane and others left them looking a little toothless
at the end. That has in turn given rise to the other problem, which is a
perception that they are poorly disciplined.
On the face of it the slew of penalties that was awarded
against them was what turned the Emirates Airlines Park match, where the Bulls
were leading 12-0 but then eventually succumbed 38-12, but those penalties were
the result of the forward pressure being applied by the Lions.
It was the same in some other Bulls matches, not least their
first round game against the Lions, when they had to deal with yellow cards on
top of the penalties. For Mitchell it must be clear that the game he envisages
the Bulls playing and challenging for the title with can’t come through unless
he has beef, and depth of beef, at forward.
Not that there weren’t Bulls forwards who developed well
this year, and RG Snyman is just one of several Bulls players who is a
different player, and a much more complete player, than when Mitchell took
over. Perhaps that is the measure of Mitchell’s success to this point, the improvement
of the individual players, Jesse Kriel being the stand-out. The Springbok
centre is not the same player he was last year, and that is meant in a positive
The Lions finished the league phase of the season with a
forward pack that took a bit step up with the return of stalwarts Malcolm Marx
and Warren Whiteley. A lot is spoken about the Lions’ attacking playing style,
but it is the pack that is the key to their success. They are set to lose
players at the end of the season and their ability to replace them will
determine whether they remain a challenger for the Super Rugby title going
Time will tell what their coaching team might look like next
year as there are whispers from Johannesburg that Swys de Bruin is more
comfortable being an assistant coach. This year, the first one since the
departure of Johan Ackermann, was a step backwards, though injuries didn’t help
them and if they go on to win this year’s competition, which they could well
still do, they will in the process show just how much Marx, Whiteley et al were
missed for much of the season. Not to mention of course the still absent Jaco
The Lions have built their success around the continuity
built up over several seasons and may now be coming to the end of that cycle.
Next year and beyond that could provide a litmus test of the effectiveness of
their succession planning and the strength of their systems.
The Stormers ended the season a week earlier than everyone
else and two weeks earlier than they did previous seasons because they failed
to make the quarterfinals. Like the Lions, injuries hurt them - Eben Etzebeth
does make a massive difference to them when he is present - but perhaps what
was drummed out in the win they scored over the Sharks that ended their
campaign was the benefits that can be derived from a bit of clarity.
The Stormers struggled to establish their identity early in
the season and probably weren’t helped by the over-complicated configuration of
their coaching team. They never had a designated defence or attack coach this
year, they had coaches who took charge of the respective disciplines in
specifically dedicated areas of the field and phases of play. The Stormers
volunteered disclaimers when it was written about in mid-season, but that might
just be further indication that there is fire causing the smoke.
The Stormers’ biggest challenge remains the environment they
work in. The over-politicised Cape rugby administration doesn’t do the premier
team representing the region any favours, and it would have been really
interesting to see how Eddie Jones would have dealt with it had he not opted to
go to England instead. Mitchell can probably consider himself fortunate that he
wasn’t engaged by Western Province at the end of 2015 and is now at the Bulls
That said, there is always talent coming through in the Cape
because of the strong feeder systems, and there are young players in the
Stormers team that are on the threshold of making it big. Stand up Cobus Wiese,
and Juarno Augustus has massive potential too, which is probably why Western
Province let Nizaam Carr go without too much of a fight.
There are also understandably question marks about the
finances, or lack there-of, that the Cape union has in an era where trophies
are bought as much as they are developed for.
Their chances of going deep into the competition in 2019,
which is what they should do as the strength of their forward depth in
particular suggests they should, will hinge on how quickly Damian Willemse
develops between now and next year. There is space for the flyhallf to grow as
Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus has been talking about fast-tracking him.
If you look back through the history of Super Rugby you will
note that all the winners had strong, world-class halfback combinations -
Justin Marshall and Andrew Mehrtens/Dan Carter at Crusaders, George
Gregan/Stephan Larkham when the Brumbies were strong, Fourie du Preez and Morne
Steyn at the Bulls, Aaron Cruden at the Chiefs.
Willemse has the potential to become a great player but only
time will tell whether he will develop the on-board computer that separates the
great flyhalves, for that read General or game director, from the ordinary.
Given how important the position is, the Stormers could do with the purchase of
a good outsider to improve the flyhalf depth for there are still doubts about
Jean-Luc du Plessis’ hip/groin and the stop-gap measure of playing Dillyn Leyds
at pivot only works for the romantics.
The Sharks, who like the Lions are still in the competition,
ended the league season as they lived most of it - being inconsistent. Their
match against the Lions was in many ways a microcosm of their campaign, with
two thirds of the game delivering poor rugby blighted by schoolboy errors
before suddenly they came together in the last third to win it.
The impression we should have been left with from that game
though was that the Lions gifted it to them, but one area where the Sharks have
improved immeasurably, and this might have started when Bok assistant coach
Jacques Nienaber was with them in Australia, is their defensive game.
They’ve also improved their backline attack and are asking
more questions, though their backline coach Dick Muir was honest in his own
appraisal when asked for it after the loss to the Stormers - there’s been
improvement and growth, he said, but not quickly enough.
The Sharks do appear to rely too heavily on physical
dominance. On the days when that is not forthcoming, like last year’s Currie
Cup final, they have very little to offer. Their chances of success next year
may depend on whether they can supplement their impressive back row depth by
building their depth at lock, and it may also depend on what you think of
Robert du Preez as a flyhalf. The jury is out on that one, and possibly also on
his father as the coach.
One thing is not debatable though, and that is that next
year for the Sharks, as is the case with the Stormers and the Bulls, will be
one where there will be no room for excuses. It’s time to have all those guns
blazing so that the current trend of stadium turnstiles starting to gather rust
can be reversed.
Next year it will be 20 years on from perhaps one of the
most exciting periods in South Africa’s Super Rugby history. The 1999 Stormers
under Bob Skinstad did not win the competition, but they played an exciting,
vibrant style of rugby that had Newlands filled to the rafters week after week.
South African rugby needs that, just as it needs in the World Cup year a return
to the 2007 vibe, when the Bulls started their own run of success by beating
the Sharks in a Durban final, thus laying the platform for World Cup success
for the Boks a few months later.
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