In the spirit of what’s an annual exercise for many, with varying degrees of success, Quintin van Jaarsveld takes a stab at the South African United Rugby Championship teams’ new year’s resolutions.
Bulls: Remedy Tighthead-ache
While the Bulls have solid depth in general, it was no secret that their one weakness was their wonky front row and the loss of super prop Trevor Nyakane to Racing 92 in December exacerbated the issue from a chink in the armour to a full-blown fracture in the foundation.
It had to be the most devastating of departures for Jake White, who rather helplessly had to let Nyakane go after the charismatic colossus enjoyed a career-best season as an all-conquering swing prop for the Springboks.
Losing a player with that rare ability to pack a punch on both sides of the front row along with the clear indication that the World Cup winner’s only now entering his prime will haunt White for years to come.
The enormity of the loss was most evident when greenhorn tighthead Robert Hunt was gored in the 30-16 loss to the Sharks in Durban in early December. A lamb to the slaughter, the 25-year-old endured a baptism of fire that became tough to watch.
With little other option, White sent Lizo Gqoboka on to try to stop the bleeding, but the Springbok loosehead found life at tighthead tormenting, to the point that he was yellow-carded after a string of scrum penalties.
It’s worth noting that hard man Jacques van Rooyen and promising rookie Mornay Smith were unavailable for that match through injury, but neither, with respect, offer a quick fix to the tighthead dilemma.
The Bulls brass have already hinted that a new signing could be imminent and the R3.6 million salary cap increase each of the local franchises have reportedly been granted will go a long way towards plugging the prop hole.
Lions: Lay New Foundation
Of the local franchises, the Lions are the unfortunate ones who are forced to rebuild most regularly. The pride of Johannesburg are caught in a loop and are currently in the rough patch of that predicament.
For them, it’s the most frustrating of realities while for the majority of fans of the other South African sides, it’s seen as an old excuse, with the common denominator being it’s an issue all local rugby lovers are tired of.
Be that as it may, the Lions are set for their first full season without long-time general Elton Jantjies. Granted, they were without the legendary playmaker for most of 2020 due to his French fling and Springbok commitments, but now that his move abroad is permanent, it truly is the start of a new era.
Ivan van Rooyen has also lost the services of Springbok wing Courtnall Skosan, who’s been a try-scoring machine since joining the Northampton Saints, and lock Wilhelm van der Sluys, who called time on his career.
Unlike the other South African teams, the Lions are sans superstars and big losses are, thus, even tougher to recover from as they take serious chunks out of the already limited depth. Junior Springbok star Jordan Hendrikse has all the makings of the next franchise flyhalf, but he starts the year on the sidelines after having broken his ankle in October.
What’s most promising is the intellectual property they’ve acquired on the coaching front has already made a significant impact with the fresh philosophies of former Springbok trio Albert van den Berg (forwards and lineouts coach), Ricardo Loubscher (backline, attack and skills coach) and Jaque Fourie (defence coach) taking the Lions from Currie Cup wooden spoonists to South African Shield leaders.
It’s a long stretch still and with no Springbok reinforcements, trying times are ahead. The goal will be to continue to build on their solid start to lay a foundation for future success.
Sharks: Fulfil Potential
As South Africans, we’re are people of humility. Come the start of a new competition or year, we generally refrain from making bold proclamations, even when they have bookies’ backing. As a new venture, having curbed expectations is the wisest way local fans can view their team’s inaugural campaign.
Seizing the silverware will take time, however, qualifying for the eight-team playoffs is more than a realistic goal, especially for the Bulls and Sharks. With nine representatives in the British & Irish Lions series and Rugby Championship squads and eight in the end-of-year touring party, the Durban franchise boast the most current Springboks of the local outfits.
They’re not only unparalleled in quantity but quality as well, with Springbok skipper Siya Kolisi and first-choice staples Bongi Mbonambi, Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi all on their books and with their murderer’s row of top talent now available, the push for a playoff berth can begin in earnest.
“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” sums up the Sharks in Super Rugby after they finished runners-up on no less than five occasions. They were also knocked out four times at the semifinal stage and twice in the quarterfinals.
That speaks to potential unfulfilled and is an unwanted tag they’ll look to shed from the jump in their new journey. That begins with a signal of intent by advancing to the quarterfinals.
Stormers: Discover Attacking Mojo
Frustratingly, the Stormers midfield has been where momentum and any hopes of creativity and excitement have gone to die on game days for far too long.
Several combinations have been tried post the glittering duo of Damian de Allende and Jean de Villiers and yet, the centres remain a pit of quicksand – a vortex that sucks the energy and positivity out of hard-working but afflicted or otherwise hampered ball carriers.
Attempts to tiptoe around the issue involve loose forwards leading the offence by punching up the pill or mercurial fullback Warrick Gelant – the first recipient of the URC Player of the Month award – coming into the line at first receiver and wielding a bit of magic, be it with clever inside or cutout balls, dangerous dinks or fancy footwork.
The staleness is especially excruciating considering the glory years of Western Province rugby were built on electrifying running rugby. Those have been replaced by the lowest of expectations from fans who’ve been conditioned to expect dreck from the men in the midfield, like an emotionally taxing type of hypnosis.
More, or perhaps more accurately put, some poetic license needs to be given to the Cape Town centres to express themselves, otherwise, they’ll remain rugby crash test dummies minus any educational value that leads to evolution. This needs to be the year John Dobson “backs his boytjies” to borrow the Varsity Cup’s slogan.