Although the Super 14 begins for most teams this year on Valentine’s Day, it can be assumed that there will be a minimum of love lost, particularly in Christchurch and Cape Town. In the former, the multi-award-winning Crusaders play the most unpredictable of all New Zealand’s franchises, the Chiefs. In the latter the Stormers host the Sharks.
It’s not inconceivable that those four teams will all be involved in the semifinals when May rolls around. The Crusaders are, as usual, the defending champions, whereas every season for the Chiefs begins full of hope, the last thing left in Pandora’s Box.
The Crusaders will be without Dan Carter for the duration of the competition, but have such depth that it’s inconceivable they will not be around for the knockout stages.
At Newlands, the Stormers simply have to hope that they don’t get off to the standing start that cost them so dearly last year. They lost 16-9 to the Bulls and 12-10 to the Sharks; both games they could and should have won. In between, the Stormers lost 22-0 to the Crusaders at Newlands and consequently their season was doomed before they stepped aboard the plane to the Antipodes.
After that calamitous start, however, the team that coach Rassie Erasmus built won eight of 10 matches, with one draw and a three-point defeat to the Blues in Auckland.
They were a bonus point away from contesting the semifinals and there is reason to believe that this year they may go at least one place better than last.
It is not a good omen, though, that they begin against the Sharks, even if it is a home game, for of all the teams in the competition the Sharks look the best equipped to challenge for the title. Under John Plumtree’s astute guidance the Sharks won the Currie Cup for the first time in 12 seasons last year.
Under Dick Muir they came within one minute of winning the Super 14 in 2007, which adds up to the fact that they are anything but paper tigers.
In accordance with the role mapped out for him by the Springbok selectors, Ruan Pienaar is Plumtree’s number one fly half in 2009. He will play outside
Rory Kockott against the Stormers, thereby killing two birds with one stone.
Kockott’s live-wire presence means an awful lot to the Sharks and keeping him on the bench to accommodate Pienaar in his favourite position looked wrong. So Plumtree has bitten the bullet and told Pienaar to learn to love having two numbers on his back instead of one. By the end of the competition we will know a lot more about Pienaar’s ability to play fly half than we do now. The other significant change, also driven by the national selectors, sees John Smit moving from hooker to tight head prop.
Last year there was some muddled thinking about this. According to the selectors Smit ”deserved” a chance to prolong his Springbok career until after the British and Irish Lions have left our shores in July.
That was a smoke screen for the fact that, although they believed Bismarck du Plessis was now a better hooker than Smit, the Springboks needed the injection of sagacity that the latter brought to the captaincy. It seemed that, although Victor Matfield was (and is) clearly the best lock in world rugby, he did not have the knack of persuading players to raise their game.
Interestingly enough, Plumtree has chosen to keep the captaincy of the Sharks with Johann Muller and it is likely that Smit will spend plenty of time on the bench this year. It all depends on fitness, of course, for Smit’s flirtation with the Springbok tight head role in Europe last year lasted the 10 minutes it took for Du Plessis to get injured against Wales. Which brings us to the unenviable position occupied by Lions coach Eugene Eloff.
When the South African franchises announced their Super 14 squads last week, they were also obliged to make public the names of players not selected because of injury, all of whom can rejoin the squad once they recover. The Bulls — having elected to warm up for the Super 14 with a callow second team — had not a single injured player. The Stormers had two, the Cheetahs three and the Sharks four. The Lions had 14.
Even if the majority of those listed have mere ”niggles” it is unacceptable for a team to enter a new season thus plagued. If the Lions happen to come unstuck against the Cheetahs in Johannesburg on Friday night, and if they lose a few more players to injury in the course of the game, questions will have to be answered about why so many of their number are unavailable.
It is a simple answer, of course: too much rugby. And hard though it is to see beyond the excitement of a new season, should the Boks fail to perform against touring Lions in June, we will look back on the remorseless attrition of the Super 14 and lay the blame squarely at its door.
But those are thoughts for another day: right now three out of five South African franchises can confidently look the Super 14 in the eye. Let’s enjoy February first, before fearing the Ides of March.