There is a lot to look for­ward to in SA rugby

CityPress - - Sport - Simnikiwe Xa­ban­isa sports@city­press.co.za Fol­low me on Twit­ter @simx­a­ban­isa

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.

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