Andy Capostagno rugby
There are a number of truisms that are regularly trotted out when the Super 12 is in progress. There is no such thing as an easy game, beware the team that can win away from home, it’s about peaking in May and not in March, don’t get carried away with home wins.
But it’s been so long since South African teams performed well in this competition that, what the hell, let’s get carried away anyway. On the evidence of the past two weeks there is reason to believe that not one, but two South African teams will reach the semifinals of this year’s competition.
Of course the Cats reached the semis last year, but they did it by the skin of their teeth after losing all four of their matches in the Antipodes. This year they have taken advantage of a kind draw that allows them six weeks on home soil before hitting the road.
They may yet rue defeat by the Brumbies two weeks ago, but, as Rassie Erasmus pointed out, the team that lost by a point this year has travelled a considerable distance from the one that lost 64-0 in Canberra last season.
The journey has been eased by the performance of the best pack of forwards in the competition, one that may contain a maverick in Erasmus, but in all other respects adheres to the tradition that once made South African forwards the envy of the world. It is big and strong and technically proficient.
At 33 Willie Meyer is playing the best rugby of his life, not just anchoring the scrum at tight head, but also carrying the ball relentlessly forward in the loose.
In the second row Johan Ackermann is finally justifying the praise heaped upon him from an early age, providing a focal point at line-outs and restarts and using his immense upper body strength to drive forward the scrums and mauls.
And then we come to the back row. Andre Vos and Andre Venter can both
appear one-paced and predictable in other company, but put Erasmus into the mix and it is like lighting the blue touch-paper. Merely making Erasmus captain has taken a load off Vos and thus unencumbered he has taken his game up a gear to challenge the best in the world.
With quality ball thus guaranteed, Laurie Mains has been able to empower
the entire squad, convincing them that they are not inferior to New Zealanders and Australians when it comes to ball handling skills and back-line moves. There was a time not so long ago when watching the Super 12 gave South Africans a weekly inferiority complex; no more.
But while it is possible to put all of the Cats’ achievements into perspective as a linear progression based upon consistent selection and sapient coaching, it is not so easy to account for the fact that the Sharks are the only unbeaten team after four rounds of the competition.
It was easy to damn Rudolph Straeuli’s team with faint praise after a scrappy win against the Bulls and two one-point squeaks against the Brumbies and the Highlanders. But after the way the Sharks reinvented themselves against the Hurricanes the time has come to acknowledge that something remarkable is happening in Durban.
It is one thing to point out that Tana Umaga, Christian Cullen and Jonah Lomu aren’t half as effective going backwards as they are going forwards. It is another thing entirely to take them on and beat them at their own game.
It could have gone horribly wrong, especially if the video referee had not been available to overrule two Hurricanes tries in the first quarter, but it did not and when the dust has settled on this year’s tournament last week’s match may prove to be the moment when the Sharks realised they could excel and not just hang in there at this level of the game.
It is not asking too much for the Sharks to beat the Waratahs and for the Cats to do likewise against the Hurricanes this week. Additionally, with wildly contrasting tours down under coming to a conclusion, it is not impossible that the Stormers could beat the Brumbies in Canberra and the Bulls are overdue a win against the Highlanders in Dunedin.
So much for the power of positive thinking, but a cloud has nevertheless come across the game this week with the death of the great Gordon Brown. He was the town of Troon’s most famous export until Colin Montgomery came upon the scene. “Ah”, he said, “But I’m Broon Frae Troon, Monty’s the goon frae Troon.”
I had the privilege of commentating with Brown at two Hong Kong Sevens tournaments. He had the priceless gift of enthusiasm; when a game between, say, Papua New Guinea and Chinese Taipei was drifting into kick and chase tactics he would focus his attention on one player whose body language betrayed the most crucial attribute of all: enjoyment.
At the 1995 World Cup Brown commentated for Sky TV and flew his son out to watch the final at Ellis Park. Later that evening Brown spotted Kobus Wiese in the same pub and told his son to get his autograph on the match programme.
As Wiese was signing he looked up and said, “Just a minute, aren’t you Gordon Brown?” Gordon said yes, Kobus gave him the pen and said, “In that case, I want your autograph.”
Gordon Brown was a big man, but his heart was bigger still. The world is a poorer place without him.