The past weekend was one of the more successful for South African Super Rugby franchises. Five victories for the six teams, including away wins for the Sharks and Kings, home wins against foreign opposition for the Lions and the Stormers, and a hard-fought win for the Cheetahs against the Bulls. It’s still early days in the competition, but after two rounds there appears to be an urgency in the South African play that we haven’t seen before at this stage of Super Rugby. The teams aren’t taking time to warm up. We’re not hearing the normal platitudes from coaches about the players “being a bit rusty” and there being “a lot of work to do”. The rustiness has gone, a lot of the work has been done. The pre-season has been long and hard, the warmup games have been tough and intensive, and the players have gone into the opening rounds of the competition at full speed. Or at least I hope so. Let this not be a case of too much too soon and the players run out of steam and ideas by week 6. Sport24’s Rob Houwing also feels something is stirring in SA rugby. – David O’Sullivan
By Rob Houwing
It’s certainly too early to know whether these are the seeds of a genuine revival, or merely a false dawn.
But the first two rounds of Super Rugby 2017 have, broadly speaking, seen a marked change for the better in desire, tempo and skill levels by South African teams.
That is no special consolation to a once-mighty domestic franchise like the Bulls, for example, who are the only team from our shores winless after a brace of matches.
But even they appear to have bought into a new drive toward improved fluidity and constructive play, and remember that they opened their account with relative toughies on paper – away against the Stormers and Cheetahs.
Experiencing a bye next weekend, the three-time champions have a fortnight to work on their consistency over the course of 80 minutes (they’ve had promising fightback spells in both Cape Town and Bloemfontein) before their first Loftus game against the Sunwolves which should see them comfortably, with respect to the pretty flimsy Japanese outfit, open their win account.
Apart from the Bulls, however, the second weekend was a rosy one results-wise for the other SA teams.
The Cheetahs will be highly chuffed with their deserved derby triumph in an often breathless affair despite the heavy Free State Stadium surface, whilst all of the Sharks (over the Brumbies), Lions (Waratahs), Stormers (Jaguares) and Kings (Sunwolves) prevailed against overseas rivals.
It was the first time, in an ordinary-season round featuring at least three SA fixtures against foreign opponents, in which our sides have pulled off a “clean sweep” in that respect since the corresponding round two, coincidentally, of the 2016 competition.
— SuperSport (@SuperSportTV) March 6, 2017
On that occasion, the Lions earned a particularly rousing 36-32 victory over the Chiefs away, while the Bulls (45-25) and Sharks (19-15) banked home wins against the Rebels and Jaguares respectively.
With the notable exception of the Lions, who marched confidently onward and into the final, the rest of the SA challenge rather fizzled last year – ahead of a woefully traumatic international season for the Springboks.
So early signals from Super Rugby have to be treated with extreme caution.
That said, the important entertainment value and gumption provided by the majority of South African teams over the past two weekends already seems a discernible notch higher than witnessed for much of last year in the competition.
There was also, I would argue, further encouraging weight on Saturday to Bok legend Victor Matfield’s theory on a SuperSport chat show a few days ago that collective stamina and conditioning levels of South African players have risen.
Those are, naturally, key considerations if SA sides are, indeed, strongly intent on playing a more zesty, daring ball-in-hand game henceforth, putting them rather more in line with the standard-bearing New Zealand franchises.
It is also not the worst thing in the world that wins against teams from abroad can be achieved even while certain flaws clearly remain.
The Lions, for example, were fantastic value against the Waratahs on attack, pretty much a la their 2016 campaign, but will be acutely aware that it is not that desirable to register eight tries while leaking five yourselves, as they did in Johannesburg.
While their mauling play was a pleasing supplementary feature to their wider offensive thrust, coach Johan Ackermann is likely to address defence and exit strategy very spiritedly over the next few days.
Meanwhile the Stormers had something of a comeuppance – coach Robbie Fleck implied as much, seeing some benefits – against the Jaguares after the lavish praise they had earned for the dismantling of the Bulls a week earlier.
They had to scrap mightily hard to get over the line against the Pumas-laden Argentineans, and were perhaps fortunate that an old Achilles heel – poor discipline, resulting in costly cards – struck the visitors at crucial times in the contest.
Still, the job was done, warts and all, and maybe the tightness of the score-line was as much a reflection of all-round improvement on the part of the Jaguares as it was due to the Stormers’ shortcomings in some respects.
The Sharks required a bit of combined magic from Curwin Bosch and Lukhanyo Am, after the siren, to snatch victory in the Brumbies’ den … but whoever complained about a burst of genius deciding a tense sports fixture?
— Jacques Maree (@JacquesMaree73) March 4, 2017
It is also not easy for any visiting team to leave Canberra victorious, so the Sharks will be mentally buoyed now after their narrow loss to the Reds one game earlier; their Aussie tour ended up being a five-points-from-10 affair, which is a lot better than a kick in the chops.
Of course the common denominator from the first two rounds is that no South African outfit have yet tested themselves against opponents from New Zealand, so any glee about mass improvement should be reserved until (at least!) round five, when the first bilateral scrap takes place – Blues versus Bulls in Albany.
But let’s give praise where it is due: several of our sides already look sprightlier than many of us would have imagined in pre-season. – Sport24