Heady days after the golden age of Super Rugby
The curtain falls on act one of the Super Rugby season on Saturday night. When the last person has left Loftus Versfeld, it will mark the beginning of a month-long hiatus while the International Rugby Board’s June international window opens around the world.
Not so long ago the Stormers might have been looking forward to the ceasefire with the air of one whose task is nine-tenths complete. It is no longer the case. Having set the pace for the rest of the teams with an unbeaten run that lasted two months, Allister Coetzee’s troops have hit the mid-season wall. Two narrow wins against the Cheetahs and Waratahs at Newlands were followed by a 25-20 defeat to the Sharks in Durban. Consequently, this week’s trip to Pretoria looms even larger than usual for the great rivals.
The Stormers have a slender two-point lead over the Bulls at the top of the South African conference, which means that defeat would topple them from their perch for the first time this season.
There is even a possibility that they might take the break in third position on the log if they fail to secure a bonus point and the Sharks score four tries in seeing off the Lions in Johannesburg. How the mighty would have fallen.
But it may not be as grim as that, for the Stormers have proved a tough nut to crack all season. An apparently wretched situation in Durban was almost redeemed in the final quarter, thanks to a never-say-die attitude and two tries from Gio Aplon.
If Coetzee can coax one more mighty effort from his team, they might yet have breathing space at the top of the log and a month to retrieve their injury-denuded squad from the hospital waiting room.
There is added spice to the occasion with a Springbok squad announcement at Loftus on the same evening. The Boks have a three-Test series with England on the horizon and it is a moot point whether Stuart Lancaster, coach of the tourists, ought to allow his squad to watch the match at their Umhlanga hotel.
Just more than a quarter of a century ago, the England team defied international opprobrium and played a two-Test series against the Boks. Derek Morgan, the manager of the team, flew down to watch the Springbok trial at Boet Erasmus in Port Elizabeth. “The problem was,” said Morgan, “the longer I watched the more I realised that the Bok pack was too good for us. In the days of amateurism you never had the luxury of taking your strongest side on tour and I suppose we were missing at least 10 players who would have figured in a Five Nations match.”
That is not the case for Lancaster and, in contrast to the 1984 side, a large number of his squad is match fit after the Aviva Premiership final at Twickenham just last week. Nevertheless, it would be a brave – or foolhardy – coach who would watch the talent on display at the Bulls-Stormers match without a certain degree of disquiet and a large dose of envy.
These are heady days for South African rugby. There was a time not so long ago when the retirement of several of the golden generation that won the World Cup in 2007 looked like presaging a few lean years. But the bar was set high by John Smit and Co and the new stars intend to clear it.
For instance, what should we make of the Stormers being without Steven Kitshoff in the front row that will take on the Bulls? Kitshoff is not injured; far from it. Instead, the carrot-topped loosehead has joined the South African side that will contest the Junior World Championship in Cape Town and Stellenbosch over the next three weeks.
The problem is that Kitshoff has gone from talented youngster to the mainstay of the tight five during this season’s Super Rugby tournament and Coetzee feels he will be wasting his time with the under-20s. The Sharks feel the same way about their burgeoning centre, Paul Jordaan, and lock, Peter-Steph du Toit, but the franchises agreed to release their young stars at a meeting with the South African Rugby Union several months ago.
It is not a new issue. Two years ago the Junior World Championship was held in Argentina, which meant that the Sharks had to do without Patrick Lambie, the Bulls without CJ Stander and the Lions without Elton Jantjies and Jaco Taute. Lambie had already established himself in the Sharks Super Rugby side by then and had four Test caps by the end of the year, a path that Kitshoff is likely to follow in due course.
As ever, one door closes and another opens. Former Sharks and Springbok loosehead Deon Carstens should get the opportunity to resurrect his stalled career. As an added bonus, Carstens has the chance to prove a few points on a wonderful stage under the watchful eye of the Springbok coach.
It would seem arrant madness for Heyneke Meyer to change his squad on the basis of one performance, but history is littered with examples of last-minute selectorial peregrination. It is not impossible to imagine that the game at Loftus will be a straight shootout between the two second rows for the starting berths against England. It was also significant that Meyer chose to single out Sharks captain Keegan Daniel for praise this week, suggesting that he is open to persuasion in the make-up of his back row.
Ironically, of course, whereas the franchise coaches can look forward to a break from the weekly pressures of Super Rugby, for Meyer the kitchen is about to become very hot indeed. His squads so far have been notable for their inclusiveness, but you cannot pick everyone and there comes a time when hard decisions have to be made.
How Meyer copes with the next month will define the entire season in South Africa, whichever team earns bragging rights at Loftus on Saturday.