There is a lot to look forward to in SA rugby
It is not a very South African thing to do to go rummaging for positives in the aftermath of a year of rugby like the one we’ve just had.
Our brains are still scrambled by how an irresistible Lions side unravelled at a windswept and rain-soaked Westpac Stadium in the Super Rugby final against the Hurricanes last year, while the number eight – from the unprecedented tests the Springboks lost last year – is etched in our memories.
This year hasn’t started particularly well either, with SA Rugby doing its best to redefine the meaning of next week (it has been three weeks since it said it would make an announcement on the Bok coaching situation “next week”).
And the less said about the organisational paralysis that sees them without an Under-20 coach or a highperformance manager the better.
Yet despite the fact that Super Rugby, which begins on Thursday with the Rebels against the Blues, will elbow for room with the Six Nations, World Rugby Sevens, the European Championship, the English Premiership, the French Top 14 and even the Varsity Cup, there’s a lot to look forward to if you’re South African.
As a hysterical nation – why think rationally when you can predict doom? – last year’s events have been taken to mean the end of rugby as we know it. But from a pure rugby fan perspective, there’s an awful lot to look forward to, especially from the South African teams.
Last year’s failings may have exposed the flimsy nature of the country’s rugby foundations, but, by the same token, it put a mirror to the rugby fraternity – the reflection of which even they can’t wish away. By that I mean playing style, juniorised coaching and half-hearted conditioning are front and centre in terms of things the powers that be are trying to address.
What with all those indabas last year, it will be interesting to see how it translates into how the teams play this year, but from a personal perspective, there are so many things I look forward to seeing from all six South African franchises this year.
The first is if the Lions will back up last year by at least going all the way to the final again.
With the pack having remained roughly the same, save for the potentially exciting elevation of flank Ruan Ackermann into the starting line-up, maybe the most important thing to see is whether halfbacks Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies have had their confidence destroyed by their poor Bok experience.
Having already lost a few key players, including Leolin Zas and Juan de Jongh, to injury during the warm-up games, maybe expectations should be downgraded to whether their assistant coach, New Zealander Paul Feeney, can turn them into a running side again.
Better yet, can he help turn Damian de Allende into the dynamic player he was two years ago instead of the auxiliary flanker the centre has been turned into at Springbok level?
The Bulls have a better squad than many people think and the return of Handrè Pollard means they’ll be a side with direction and a team with aggressive attacking intent. Quite where new recruit Lood de Jager fits into the lock stocks manned by Jason Jenkins and superstarin-waiting RG Snyman remains to be seen, but as depth goes in that area, few have better.
And we haven’t even spoken about that back three of Jamba Ulengo, Travis Ismaiel and Warrick Gelant, who have been joined by former Bok and Sevens man Cornal Hendricks.
The Sharks looked the part in the Currie Cup until they unravelled in the later stages of the competition. The question is whether injury-prone captain Pat Lambie will finally drag them up in Super Rugby and launch a meaningful bid for the Bok fly half berth.
The Cheetahs have an age-old problem: will their breathtaking Currie Cup form translate into Super Rugby form? With players such as Ox Nché, Raymond Rhule, Nico Lee and Sergeal Petersen in their number, they should at least be engrossing to watch.
And, finally, the Kings appear to be everyone’s favourites for the drop if the competition does go down to 16 teams next year, but their mix of journeymen (Ross Geldenhuys), players on the comeback trail (Lionel Cronjé) and unrealised talent (Wandile Mjekevu), they may well prove competitive underdogs.