Thanks, it's been super
The end of an era is upon us. The Super 14 begins its final season this week and the South African Rugby Union (Saru) decided that now is as good a time as any to release its list of contracted Springboks for 2010 and 2011.
This is a break with tradition, for it has generally been assumed by Springbok management teams that form in Super rugby dictates who wears the green and gold when the Test match season commences in June.
It is safe to assume that there has been much behind-the-scenes negotiating between player agents and Saru representatives, because there is a solid core of men who have achieved virtually everything the game has to offer in Saru’s lists.
In times gone by the ruling body was wary of success. Players with multiple caps drained the coffers more than gifted youngsters and tended to argue with their superiors over rugby matters.
A year ago John Smit was hoping to be selected for the series against the British and Irish Lions. His best-selling biography was scheduled to cash in on what was perceived to be a last hurrah. Then he was retained for the Tri-Nations series and South Africa romped to victory, losing only one game and beating New Zealand three times in a row along the way.
Nevertheless, Smit and his team were brought down to Earth on the post-season tour to Europe. When Smit was announced the Sharks captain for the Super 14, it was safe to assume that his Test days were over, but now he has a Springbok contract through to the end of the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.
By the time May rolls around, Saru’s largesse with its stars will probably look a little odd. There will inevitably be a bunch of young hopefuls playing starring roles in the Super 14, most of whom will not be considered for the national side because of the extra expense involved.
Waiting in the wings
A few lacklustre performances from the “stars” and the nation will be howling for change and the coach’s head will be on the line.
A great deal of torment will be avoided if South Africa’s teams have a good Super 14. Changes of personnel in the Bulls and Sharks have persuaded many critics that bad times are just around the corner.
And yet it is hard to believe that two teams studded with World Cup-winning Springboks need have anything to fear. After all, it is not as though the franchises in New Zealand and Australia are bursting with talent.
It is not luck that has allowed South Africa to dominate world rugby for the past three seasons. A group of great players arrived in one place at one time and the rest of the world could not keep up.
We may never see a better lock than Victor Matfield, a better wing than Bryan Habana, a better scrumhalf than Fourie du Preez or a better centre combination than Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie.
So in an ideal world Saru’s anointed few will be thankful for the faith shown in them and propel at least two South African sides into the semifinals of the Super 14.
In the years since isolation ended there have been plenty of players who did not deserve such faith but, if any group is worth going out on a limb for, this is it. It may be many years before South African rugby is again in such a powerful position and, although the 2011 World Cup may be a bridge too far, the Super 14 title is an achievable goal.
The Bulls begin against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. The Free Staters have rained on the Bulls’ parade several times in recent years and home advantage confers the extra pinch of self-belief required. An equally slippery banana skin awaits the Stormers in Johannesburg. The Lions are desperately short of quality players, but new coach Dick Muir will have prepared them in expert fashion.
It has become a familiar mantra: this is the Stormers’ year and yet a decade without enough mongrel in the tight five has cost them dearly. Successive coaches have sought to obscure the deficiencies of the pack by telling anyone who got near enough to listen that they had scrummed the opposition into the ground and that there really was no problem. But there was, and there is, and it will be the sticking point again this season.
The great imponderables are the Sharks. Two-thirds of the way through the 2009 tournament they had won seven games and lost just one. They stood proudly atop the table and then lost four of their last five games, all on South African soil, to drop out of semifinal contention. This year they will be without the mercurial Frans Steyn and Juan Hernández, while age is creeping up on a few stalwarts.
But the Sharks’ academy is the best in the country and with the judicious introduction of talented youngsters, the Sharks may pip the other four franchises to a place in the last four this time around.