Cape Town – Thank goodness the bookies
aren’t right every time.
If they were, South Africa’s challenge for
the Super Rugby 2016 title would virtually be dead in the water before the
campaign even starts.
The country has not won the competition
since the last of three Bulls successes in 2010. Following the advent of the
conference-styled format a year later, domestic cabinets have been notably dry,
save for one outfit nominally clinching the lower-gravitas domestic group
silverware each time.
Further, controversial expansion of Super
Rugby (now featuring 18 teams, including a record six from our shores) for next
season hasn’t been accompanied by any great belief in the betting world that
South African luck is about to turn for the better again.
Just for example, if you visit www.sportingbet.co.za you will find
that a trio of sides from World Cup-retaining New Zealand – Chiefs, Crusaders,
Hurricanes – are already jointly tipped as main title prospects.
Then come a pair of Australian franchises
(Waratahs, Brumbies), with last season’s winners the Highlanders a little
surprisingly considered only sixth favourites.
You have to wait for seventh in the pecking
order, at a reasonably attractive 12-1, for first SA team, in the shape of 2015
local conference winners the Stormers, closely followed by compatriots the
Sharks and Bulls in that order.
As for the Lions, Cheetahs and financially
embattled Kings, they fall into “rank outsider” territory (particularly the
Sadly I have to largely concur with this
bleak outlook, even if the arrival of Eddie Jones at Newlands already seems
like a substantial breath of fresh air and may give the Stormers not only a
repeat of SA supremacy in 2016 but a bit of a shot at the overall honours too.
Still, long-suffering Stormers supporters
might do well to remember that in terms of any title prospects, their favourite
side suffers from much the same phenomenon that plagues every SA team these
days: an annual shedding of quality names to increasingly stronger monetary
climes north of the equator.
Simply put, you get the sense that every
year teams from our portion of the Super Rugby landscape are more crippled than
any others by a constant need to “rebuild” after significant exoduses – as the
rand buckles abysmally, do you see the trend stopping any time soon? -- to the
United Kingdom, Ireland and France.
You could bundle Japan into that group,
although in many cases at least players participating in their Top League do
return here for a meaningful chunk of Super Rugby – albeit often knackered and
off the pace after a near non-existent off-season.
For all the optimism that has accompanied
the appointment of Jones in Cape Town, it will be difficult for him to
immediately turn his charges into title material in 2016 – not when the franchise
has shed such proven members of its playing intelligentsia as Jean de Villiers,
Duane Vermeulen, Steven Kitshoff, Demetri Catrakilis, Manuel Carizza and
The Stormers are better than most SA rivals
when it comes both to shrewd recruitment and ensuring vibrancy and feeder
potential from their youth structures, but will nevertheless stay vulnerable to
a “brain drain” threat at the end of every Super Rugby campaign ... one that
may always preclude the ability to create a truly juggernaut squad worthy of
marching all the way to the top prize.
By the same token, the Sharks are certainly
going to feel, especially at first, the non-presence in 2016 of former
stalwarts like Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, Willem Alberts, Ryan Kankowski
and Francois Steyn (not to mention the switch of loyalties to Newlands of
Pieter-Steph du Toit).
And by their raiding the Cheetahs, as it
were, for customers like Willie le Roux, Joe Pietersen and Coenie Oosthuizen,
it hardly helps the less cash-flush central franchise’s quest to be even
reasonably competitive themselves in the looming season.
For all the talk in Pretoria, too, of a
bright new world under the coaching hand of Nollis Marais, the Bulls will first
have to gradually adjust to life without men like Victor Matfield, Flip van der
Merwe, Jacques du Plessis (or read: a mass stripping of their second-row
resources), as well as Francois Hougaard and Pierre Spies.
Just as you suspect that a couple of South
African sides are on the brink of taking a step forward in Super Rugby, you
have to temper your view by taking into the account the inevitable backward
step afflicting them at the same time.
Even with the new season three months away,
it seems those wily bookies know this only too well ...
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing