Super Rugby is a marathon, not a sprint – even more so this year because the season will not be interrupted by the June international window.
There are enough fixtures to allow slow-starting teams to catch up and, equally, for those fast out of the blocks to slow down and smell the roses. Furthermore, the first month of fixtures is dominated by local derbies, the results of which frequently ignore the form book.
This week, for instance, the Reds play the Waratahs in Brisbane. It is the greatest contest in Australian Rugby Union. The Waratahs are the defending Super Rugby champions, but managed to lose at home to the Force in the opening round. The Reds beat the same opponents a week later, but lost both their other fixtures. No one knows what will happen this week, which is one of the more pleasing aspects of sport in general.
In South Africa, there are two local derbies on Saturday evening: the Cheetahs play the Bulls in Bloemfontein and the Sharks travel to Newlands to meet the Stormers. The Sharks and the Bulls both have one win from three starts, while the Stormers and the Cheetahs are unbeaten. At the risk of being repetitious, no one knows what will happen this week.
History provides little solace for those wishing to venture a prediction. The Cheetahs, for instance, have only ever beaten the Bulls twice in Super Rugby, and only once since the franchise system was introduced. But that win came last year in what was otherwise a dismal season for the Free Staters. It is also germane that the Cheetahs have picked up a losing bonus point in each of their last three defeats to the Bulls – the games are close.
Regularly exchanged players
There is also the fact that the two sides have exchanged players regularly over the past decade. This year the Bulls come to Bloemfontein with Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane and Lappies Labuschagné, all of whom were with the Cheetahs last year.
When one journalist suggested that the Cheetahs might have to change their line-out calls as a result, a jovial Naka Drotské, the Cheetahs’ head coach, said: “We have to do that every year.”
It was a reference to the constant rebuilding that has to happen as Drotské’s players follow the money.
As it happens, the Cheetahs have the chance to make a real name for themselves over the next fortnight, as they host the Sharks next week. Win both and they will be four from four as they embark on an arduous antipodean tour that takes in games against the Crusaders, the Chiefs, the Brumbies and the Force.
So far, the Cheetahs have made a virtue out of attacking with the crumbs of possession that come their way. The stats gurus at Opta Sports note that the Cheetahs averaged just 10.5 minutes with the ball in their opening two games. That’s almost three minutes less than any other team in the competition. Opponents need to look out in particular for the quicksilver breaks of Sarel Pretorius at scrumhalf and the mercurial genius of Willie le Roux at fullback.
At Newlands, a Stormers team brimful of confidence hosts the Sharks. The return from injury of Eben Etzebeth and from Japan of Schalk Burger will be a timely boost to the home side’s playing resources.
The Sharks have returnees of their own, of course, with 2007 World Cup winners JP Pietersen and Frans Steyn both back in the mix.
On paper, the Sharks and Bulls seemed the best of the local sides preseason, but in reality neither has looked a likely title contender. The fact that this is a World Cup year complicates any attempt to predict matters. There will be a mass exodus of players from all franchises after the quadrennial showcase, and it is human nature for the players concerned to have their minds elsewhere than on the immediate demands of Super Rugby.
That is as true of the Australian and New Zealand sides as it is of ours, so there is no need to get introspective. It is simply another way of saying that we should expect the unexpected. There is no reason the Bulls and the Sharks can’t win away from home this week; it just feels wrong.
Equally, there is no reason the Lions cannot break a three-match losing streak in Albany on Saturday. The first of the local franchises to go on tour could easily have won both their home games if it had not been for a tactical inflexibility. With that in mind, they should be positive ahead of their trip to Auckland’s north shore, even if the odds seem stacked against them.
For one thing, the opposition also had to travel across time zones this week. The Blues lost both their games in South Africa and face the Lions away from their Eden Park home. It is hardly ideal for John Kirwan’s men, who form a squad a long way short of the great ones on display in the 1990s.
The Lions have only won once in Auckland, 14 years ago when they campaigned as the Cats. This week it is time to laugh in the face of history.