Super stage for places in the Springbok team
Sharks and Bulls on the move, while Lions likely to hold steady
● The unedifying sight of 18 sides strutting about under the misapprehension they are all “super” rugby teams is thankfully no more.
The slightly more palatable, 15-team Super Rugby setup is reintroduced next week but the cull far from cuts to the chase with the team from Japan still the most likely to operate as a lone wolf in the competition’s cellar.
Don’t despair though, the South African assault on Super Rugby may well be more concerted, if not concentrated, without the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings.
We are reminded that there is much to play for. “We will have a new Springbok coach and our players will presumably want to show him what they are made of,” opined former Bok captain Naas Botha.
Much like the third round in golf is “moving day”, teams with aspirations of doing well at the Rugby World Cup try to mobilise and organise themselves into positions of promise in the third of a four-year cycle.
“There will no doubt be extra motivation. In fact, I’d say this year is more important than next year.
“If I was a player I’d really look at this as open season,” said the former flyhalf.
With only top spot in the conference guaranteed a place in the play-offs, expect the Lions, the Sharks, the Stormers and the Bulls to take lumps out of each other.
“With only four South African teams in the tournament no one will want to finish bottom. You’re gonna stand out like a sore thumb.
“We are so used to seeing two (local) teams challenging for spots in the play-offs and then the rest towards the bottom of the competition.”
Botha, who is a longtime TV pundit, believes despite the departure of coach Johan Ackermann, the Lions will maintain lofty standards. They reached the last two finals without delivering the killer blow and some fear they have blown their best opportunity.
Botha believes they’ll absorb the blow of Ackermann’s departure.
In fact, I’d say this year is more important than next year Naas Botha Former Springbok captain and TV pundit
“People have said for a while that Swys (de Bruin, new coach) is responsible for the way the Lions play. I expect them to be the same.”
While the Lions are expected to hold steady Botha predicts the Sharks and the Bulls will improve on their performances from last season.
“The Sharks under Robert (du Preez) I expect to go a step higher. The Bulls under John (Mitchell) should also be better.”
Naturally, the New Zealand challenge is likely to shape the business end of the competition but South African franchises can steal the march on them early on. New Zealand’s top players have been wrapped in cotton wool in the build-up and will be gradually phased into the competition. South African teams like the Stormers, who play them early, may profit, but it’s still going to be a tall order to win in Christchurch and Dunedin in rounds three and four.
“Look, with the New Zealand teams you presume that they will do well. You also presume the Australian teams will be there or thereabouts. With the Australians we just don’t know.
“Their rugby seemed to be in a bit of trouble. The Wallabies lost heavily to Scotland at the end of last year.”
Botha was quick to remind, on the other hand, that Super Rugby challenges should not be premised on the performance of national teams.
“We have to distinguish between Super Rugby and the Springboks because the latter has been so poor.
“I’m hoping for a bit of a surprise. I think a number of teams will see this as a clean break. In a South African context we certainly can. Our coaches in this year’s competition are relatively new.”
The competition kicks off next Friday when the Stormers host the Jaguares, followed by the Lions and the Sharks at Ellis Park in the only match next Saturday.
The defining moment from last year’s final when Kwagga Smith of the Lions, No 7, took out Crusaders fullback David Havili, earning the loose forward a red card which set the home team back.