The final season of Super 14 rugby gets under way next week with a South African team the defending champions. It’s worth taking note of both those statements.
Next year the competition morphs into the Super 15 and the system of everyone playing everyone else falls away. It took the Bulls a decade to work out how to play Super Rugby in the professional era and, having won the tournament twice in three years, the brains trust in Pretoria will have to go back to the drawing board.
It has become traditional for a new Super 14 season to begin with the referees applying ‘zero tolerance” on laws that they somehow overlooked during the previous 12 months. This year they will be focusing on the tackle area and the kick. This is bad news for the Bulls, who have built some of their success around exploiting the grey areas of the laws. As champions they will be under the most intense scrutiny from officials.
According to the South African Rugby Union’s head of referees, André Watson, the mess that passes for the tackle area at present will be cleaned up forthwith. The referees will penalise any player slowing down the ball at the breakdown. According to Watson, the whistle will continue to play its mournful solo until the players clean up their acts.
‘The first team to adapt will be the most successful,” he said.
The Bulls, traditionally slow to adapt to changing times, make a habit of clustering big forwards around the ball in a largely successful attempt to control the pace at which it emerges. But the second area of referee focus is potentially far more damaging to the blue machine. Aerial ping-pong threatens to kill the game. The idea of passing the ball to a player in space seems almost laughable now that 90% of attacking play emanates from a high kick followed by a high-octane chase. Many ideas were bounced around at a high level, including allowing the ball to be ‘marked” anywhere on the field and not merely inside the
Then one clever fellow read the law book and discovered that Law 24 (1) says: ‘A player is in an offside position if the ball has been kicked, or touched, or is being carried by one of his team behind him.” The law means, effectively, that if Fourie du Preez hoists a high ball from behind his forwards they all have to freeze until he puts them onside by overtaking them.
Du Preez is a great rugby player, but on reviewing some video evidence the referees realised that he does not go on to the field carrying a matter-transference beam. So when some unfortunate fullback catches the kick and then gets buried by an avalanche of blue-shirted forwards, it’s not because he can’t play, it’s because they are all offside.
This refocusing will have serious consequences in the short term for teams that base their play on ‘offensive defence”, as they call it in American football. In this country the Bulls and the Sharks have built considerable reputations because of what they do when they don’t have the ball. It is, of course, not beyond the wit of the respective coaching staffs to defuse the situation, but it may take too long for either to be serious contenders this year.
It may be that the Stormers will carry the local torch after a long period in the wilderness. They still have an Achilles heel in the pack, but that will be less damaging if their backs are to some degree insulated from opposition forwards. The acquisition from the Bulls of Bryan Habana may turn out to be a masterstroke. The greatest finisher in the game may even get to score a try created from neither a kick nor turn-over ball. Wouldn’t that be something?
‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’
It does not take a particularly clear crystal ball to see that this is going to be a tough season for the Lions and the Cheetahs. The Lions have a new coach, the cerebral Dick Muir, but no new players to speak of. Three of their best have gone — Jaque Fourie to the Stormers, Willem Alberts and Louis Ludik to the Sharks. All three are under contractual clouds, but it is safe to say that they will not be playing for the Lions this year. Muir will give the team freedom, but as Kris Kristofferson so memorably put it, ‘freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.
It is more perilous to write off the chances of the Cheetahs, for the Free State remains the single greatest source of rugby talent in this country. Naka Drotské’s unfancied outsiders came from nowhere to reach the Currie Cup final last year and gave the Bulls a scare or two at Loftus. They may, though, have to accept the role of party poopers this year, the team that beats a contender when all the other significant hurdles have already been cleared. Indisputably, however, their time will come.