SA sides off to a cracker in Super 14

Rumour has it that the South African Rugby Union (Saru) is looking for a way out of the Super 14, but you wouldn’t guess it by the way the five franchises have begun the 2009 season.

The Bulls and Sharks, finalists in 2007, have won both their games, the Lions and Stormers have won one and lost one, while the Cheetahs are unlucky to have lost both their games by a six-point margin.

Of course, the acid test will come when the teams leave our shores, but there has been an encouraging diminishment in travel sickness over the past three seasons and there is good reason to believe that the trend will continue this time around.

The Sharks have cause to be confident because the vagaries of the draw have handed them a relatively benign touring schedule. This week it’s the Chiefs in Hamilton, then the Blues in Auckland, the Reds in Brisbane and the Force in Perth.

Sharks coach John Plumtree noted that although the Chiefs lost both their opening games, there were strong mitigating factors: ‘In fairness they have probably had the hardest draw of any New Zealand side, playing last year’s finalists [Crusaders and Waratahs] in the opening two weeks away from home. I don’t think there will be panic stations from them just yet but they won’t want to drop any home games.”

Nevertheless, the Sharks must have targeted this match as a possible away win when the draw was made. The Chiefs tend to battle in the set pieces, relying on their gifted backs to make up for the lack of good-quality first-phase ball. Plumtree said: ‘They can hurt you from anywhere on the field, so if their forward pack fronts up and gains parity or gets on top of us, obviously it’s going to be a big night for us defensively.”

Another Sharks-Bulls final?
The likelihood is that the Chiefs will struggle against one of the best packs in the competition. John Smit seems to relish playing without the added burden of captaincy and has turned in two impressive games to date. With Bismarck du Plessis breathing down his neck at provincial and national level, Smit seems to recognise the need to impress both sets of selectors.

With the tight five firing, the onus is on the back row and inside backs to plot the downfall of opponents. Ryan Kankowski is maturing into the kind of galloping number eight that all teams hate to play against, while the chemistry at halfback and inside centre will surely click sooner rather than later, to the huge detriment of some unlucky opponent.

Whisper it, but we could be heading for another Sharks-Bulls final. Both teams are chock-full of match winners and no team will relish meeting them. The Bulls were without Victor Matfield this week, but you wouldn’t have guessed it, as they racked up a record score against the Blues at Loftus.

Matfield is spending his downtime on developing the coaching role that will surely be his as soon as he stops playing. In his absence scrumhalf Fourie du Preez is leading the Bulls and Matfield said: ‘Fourie is probably one of the best thinkers in the game. Leadership is not only about one guy, it is about all the leaders in the team. Last year we lost two or three of the senior leaders and that made it difficult for Fourie, but this year we’ve got four or five guys who are helping one another, thus I believe Fourie will do very well.”

It helps that certain players are pulling their weight again. This time last year Bakkies Botha didn’t know whether he would be in South Africa or France from one week to the next, but his contractual issues appear to have been resolved. And last Saturday saw the return to prominence of Pierre Spies, who has trod water ever since missing the 2007 World Cup on disputed medical grounds.

Spies was dynamic in the loose and took over Matfield’s role of stealing opposition ball in the lineouts. He was typically self-effacing in his assessment of where it all went right, saying: ‘I think we have a very good tight five—good enough to beat any pack. The new law variations mean you need a good balance there and that’s what we have.”

It might be argued, of course, that nearly every Bulls side of the past 60 years have had a good tight five, but they’ve often lacked the special players further back to make the most of it. Now with Spies, Du Preez and Bryan Habana, they have options galore, as the Blues discovered to their chagrin.

All of the above notwithstanding, the Bulls have to travel across the Jukskei to play the Lions this week and it will be a revealing match. Derby games frequently reduce play to the lowest common denominator and we will know much more about the true quality of this Bulls team if and when they succeed in putting the Lions to the sword.

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