In the spirit of Christmas, Quintin van Jaarsveld guesses what the South African Super Rugby teams hope to receive from the fat man in the red suit.
The South African surge never truly took off in this year’s Super Rugby tournament. It was a lukewarm collective effort in which the local teams were often their own worst enemy and had to look on in embarrassment as the Jaguares lifted the South African Conference trophy for the first time.
The Sharks, Lions and Stormers took one step forward and two steps back throughout the tournament, with just the Bulls managing a marginal positive win-loss record of eight and six, with two draws, enough for them to finish fifth and secure a first playoff berth since 2013.
The Sharks snuck into the knockouts in sixth place, but both sides paid the price for their erratic nature as they went down in the quarter-finals – the Bulls 35-28 to the Hurricanes in Wellington and the Sharks 38-13 to the Brumbies in Canberra. For their part, the Lions finished ninth and the Stormers 10th. All four franchises will, thus, hope for a big bag full of consistency to re-enter the conversation of legitimate title contenders in 2020.
While the starting point will be the same, each team’s journey will be different, each with its own set of unique obstacles to overcome. With that in mind, here’s a rundown of what each team could do with this Christmas:
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The highs and lows of professional sport. The Bulls climbed the ladder back into the playoffs this year, but having been stripped of the core group of Springboks who carried most of the load – Handré Pollard, Jesse Kriel, RG Snyman, Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Brits (along with Lood de Jager, who missed most of the campaign through injury) – a fall in 2020, unfortunately, seems inevitable. Just how far the drop will remain to be seen, but that the Pretoria side will have to rebuild is the reality they’re faced with.
At least they have continuity in the coaching department, with Pote Human staying put, but the big question is, how will he go about the reconstruction? Will he have the wherewithal to put the right pieces in the right places or will miscalculations or missing nuts and bolts lead to an implosion?
For example, how heavily will Human lean on the returning Morné Steyn? The Springbok veteran brings a wealth of experience with him in his long-anticipated return to Loftus from Montpellier, exactly the type of experience a depleted squad needs. As Pollard’s understudy in recent years, Manie Libbok has been groomed as the next franchise flyhalf and one would think that he’ll start the season in the No.10 jersey.
However, if, hypothetically, the rising star struggles to dictate terms in the first few games, how will Human react? Or will he back the youngster to begin with, given Steyn’s the prototypical tactical Bulls pivot and Libbok naturally looks to play flatter? This happens to be one of the “healthier” selection headaches Human will wrestle with; there’s a multitude of other not so “healthy” ones, all of them critical to the short and long term success of Bulls rugby.
The Lions’ rebuilding phase started this season. They literally and figuratively weren’t the same side that featured in the final the three previous years and plummeted out of the playoff picture altogether. The stress of it all got to Swys de Bruyn, with the passionate coach even heading home during the New Zealand trip.
He eventually re-joined the team but surprisingly quit as Springbok assistant coach in August before stepping down as Lions head coach as well. Conditioning coach Ivan van Rooyen, who filled in for De Bruyn, has been handed the head coaching reins. At 37, he has very little experience but knows his players, and, how to get the best out of them.
The player drain had a ripple effect as the stalwarts who stayed loyal to the pride ran out of gas in the latter part of the tournament. This problem looks set to continue next year as key players like World Cup winners Malcolm Marx and Kwagga Smith will either be on sabbatical in Japan or, like fellow Springbok Marvin Orie, will have to slot straight in after lucrative yet taxing loan spells in Europe in the “off-season”.
Because they lack the depth of the other local franchises, the Lions are worst off in this regard and will need a V12 engine if they want to stay in the race in 2020.
Losing a slew of stars is never ideal and the Sharks have lost many – the three Du Preez brothers, Tendai Mtawarira, Akker van der Merwe, Coenie Oosthuizen and Kobus van Wyk to name a few. But unlike the Bulls, a fresh start is exactly what the Sharks need, and 2020 is that new dawn under new coach Sean Everitt.
After the season-long drama surrounding an increasingly-annoyed Robert du Preez, which only added to the Durbanites’ woes, Everitt is a breath of fresh air – respectful, likeable and with no conflict of interests his predecessor may or may not have had. Under Everitt, who came through the ranks at the Sharks, the focus will squarely be on where it should be – the team and its development.
In that regard, the Sharks have done commendable damage control, signing a string of exciting talents including Springbok duo Sikhumbuzo Notshe and Ox Nche, Blitzbok Werner Kok, Cheetahs ace Henco Venter and Lions pair Madosh Tambwe and James Venter.
Equally promising, they’ve locked down four of the brightest young stars in the country, who helped the Junior Springboks win bronze at this year’s World Rugby U20 Championship – captain Phendulani Buthelezi, fellow flank Dylan Richardson, lock JJ van der Mescht and scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse, who was nominated for the Breakthrough Player of the Tournament award.
The ingredients are there to whip up something special, starting in 2020, Everitt just needs the right recipe book to avoid a flop.
The Stormers have been stuck in the mud in recent years largely due to the lack of an assured flyhalf to pull the strings. Jean-Luc du Plessis and Josh Stander have floundered in the role, producing the odd solid showing without making meaningful progress.
As a result, they’ve largely been found wanting tactically and have been the epitome of blunt on attack. Tries were even less scarce than rain in Cape Town this season, with the stale Stormers scoring just 34 tries, a joint-tournament low along with wooden spoonists the Sunwolves.
The answer to their offensive blues has been under their nose the entire time. Damian Willemse is a special talent – a young prodigy with mercurial skills that can unlock even the most well-structured defences. Unpredictable, creative and fearless, he’s the game-changer the Capetonians desperately needs.
Mostly used at fullback to this point, John Dobson has confirmed he’ll hand the reins over to the rising Springbok star in his first Super Rugby season as head coach. What Dobson will desire most is protection for his wunderkind so he stays injury-free and leads the Stormers into an exciting new direction.
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Quintin Van Jaarsveld is a former MDDA-Sanlam SA Local Sports Journalist of the Year and a former three-time Vodacom KwaZulu-Natal Sports Journalist of the Year. Formerly the sports editor and Outstanding Journalist of the Year award winner at The Fever Media Group, deputy editor at eHowzit, editor at SARugby.com and senior staff writer at Rugby365.com, he boasts over 15 years’ experience and is currently a freelance sports writer.