Surfeit of Super riches
The strengths and weaknesses of the new Super Rugby format are beginning to manifest themselves now that the halfway stage of the competition has been passed. Under the old format where everyone played everyone else once, it was always possible to sort the sheep from the goats. Wins on the road were a true indication of the strength of a team, while wins at home were regarded as a given for the true contenders.
The restructure, which guarantees that no South African side will be asked to play more than four games overseas, puts far greater emphasis on the domestic product.
Put simply, you can afford to lose to the Chiefs in Hamilton, but make damn sure that you beat the Cheetahs and Lions at home and away in this country.
This Saturday the Stormers host the Sharks in Cape Town and the way the log stands after the Easter weekend the result may well decide which team tops the domestic table at the end of log play. A win for either side will be the equivalent of an eight to 10 point swing.
The Stormers on 37 points lead the Sharks by three and have a game in hand to boot.
The Sharks are 12 points ahead of the Bulls in the South African conference and are guaranteed a further four points when they have their second bye in two weeks’ time. At that point the Stormers will be overseas on a campaign featuring fixtures against the Chiefs, Blues, Brumbies and Rebels.
The draw has been extremely kind to the Stormers this year and they need to make the most of it.
A win against the Sharks would allow them to drop a few games on the road with a certain amount of impunity, although there are solid reasons to suppose that Saturday’s result is a good deal more unpredictable than the equivalent fixture between the two a month ago.
The acid test
Therein lies a further downside to the restructure. Including a pre-season friendly at Newlands, this will be the third time the two sides have met in the space of three months. It is not at all impossible that they may meet again at playoff time, a fact that points to a surfeit of eggs in the pudding.
We are in danger of cheapening the product through repetition, just as has been the case in the Tri-Nations, where the unthinkable has happened and an All Blacks/Springboks Test match is no longer a guaranteed sellout.
The same thing is happening in Australia, where the “local derbies” concept really applies only to the traditional powerhouses of Queensland and New South Wales.
In Canberra a dreadful season for the Brumbies has forced the union to consider early kickoffs in the hope that more people might attend than are willing to brave the chill after sundown. Next year, it seems, the Brumbies will be Jake White’s problem, as the former Springbok coach has apparently sealed the deal to coach them.
The acid test will come now that the sides propping up the three conferences have little left to play for. How many people can the Cheetahs expect to attract to Bloemfontein when they play the Brumbies on Friday night? Come to that, will the Loftus faithful turn out in their tens of thousands to watch the Bulls play the Chiefs on Saturday?
It’s hard to kick the feeling that the rest of the season is little but a lap of honour for the Bulls. The team that won the Super 14 three times in four years is currently 12 points away from the playoff zone. Their coach, Frans Ludeke, is refusing to panic, but it seems that the only way the Bulls think they can score these days is by hoisting the ball and hoping that Bjorn Basson will catch it.
All good things come to an end
The post-season player exodus is a reality that needs to be faced now. A host of key players will be out of contract at the end of the season. Fourie du Preez and Danie Rossouw are off to Japan, Bakkies Botha and Gurthro Steenkamp will be playing in France—and possibly Gary Botha and Wynand Olivier will join them.
Most tantalisingly of all, Victor Matfield is off to Boland, where Game Plan, a company in which he has shares, has acquired 50% of the union. The rumour mill suggests that Matfield might take as many as 10 current Bulls players with him. Deon Stegmann, Jaco Pretorius and Gerhard van den Heever are all out of contract at the end of the season, while a veteran such as Jaco van der Westhuyzen might go south for one last payday.
Whatever the case, the Bulls will have to start with a clean slate in 2011, something that their hardcore support might welcome. The structures put in place a decade ago by Heyneke Meyer have reaped unprecedented rewards, but all good things come to an end.
There is a nettle that needs to be grasped by Springbok coach Peter de Villiers. Can the same Bulls players who have been misfiring in Super Rugby turn things around for the World Cup?
For the answer, consider this: De Villiers, like Matfield, is a shareholder in Game Plan.