So the log section of Super Rugby 2015 ends not with a bang but with a whimper. The Stormers are expected to field a Vodacom Cup side against the Sharks at Kings Park, and it matters not one whit what happens when the Bulls play the Cheetahs at Loftus.
The top six sides on the log have been decided a week ahead of time and only the Brumbies and Waratahs have relevant games to decide which of the Australian franchises will host a semifinal.
In the extremely unlikely event that both lose to the Crusaders and the Reds respectively, Stormers coach Allister Coetzee has some four hours to change his team and tactics. A win against the Sharks would then give the Stormers a home semi. But it is far more likely that Saturday’s games in this country will be notable only for the ending of a few eras.
The Sharks will particularly rue the loss of the Du Plessis brothers and Willem Alberts to contracts with French clubs that will kick in after the World Cup.
The Bulls say goodbye to Jacques du Plessis and Flip van der Merwe, also bound for France, and Sarel Pretorius of the Cheetahs has signed with the Newport Gwent Dragons.
In fact, Pretorius is one of a host of Free Staters leaving the union. Willie le Roux has signed with the Sharks and it looks likely that Springbok prop Coenie Oosthuizen will be joining him there.
The change in coaching staff has allowed a few players the chance to weigh their options with other clubs and provinces, and that in turn allowed new Cheetahs coach Franco Smith to begin his tenure by blooding several of his Shimla stalwarts in the Super Rugby game against the Waratahs last week.
The result was not pretty – a 58-33 home defeat – but the Cheetahs managed a four-try bonus point and actually led the game after half an hour. Smith was aided in preparing his first two games in charge by former Eagles and Pumas winger Jacques Juries.
Having just stepped down after nine years at the Harmony Rugby Academy in the Free State town of Virginia, Juries now wants to get into mainstream coaching at provincial level.
During his time at the academy, he was responsible for spotting and nurturing Blitzbokke playmakers Cecil Afrika and Branco du Preez and rising Stormers stars Seabelo Senatla and Alistair Vermaak. There are a host of others who have benefited from his wise guidance, and he says it was a pleasure getting involved with the Cheetahs.
“I think it was a decision of the board and because of my involvement with the Griffons, and that’s why [Cheetahs president] Harold Verster contacted me,” says Juries.
“He told me that Franco was looking forward to working with me because we used to play together for the Pumas. I feel that I’m ready to make the step up. I have been coaching professionally for 10 years now and I have got my world rugby coaching level three accreditation.”
Time of great flux
Juries has stepped in during a time of great flux, both at the Cheetahs and other major unions, but is in no doubt that the game will survive in South Africa despite the departure of so many stalwarts. “There will always be talent coming through in rugby in this country. It’s what we do with it that counts.
“A lot of people take credit for bringing players through, but they don’t realise that it’s not only about rugby. You have to develop the individual in totality. We’ll see if Franco’s got different ideas to counter challenges like this. We have to give him time to establish his own structures and domain.”
It’s not impossible that Smith will be one of five new local franchise coaches when Super Rugby expands to an 18-team structure next year.
The Bulls were involved in crisis meetings late this week about the future of coach Frans Ludeke. The need to keep things in-house, so often manifested at Loftus, will probably mean that Ludeke will be kicked upstairs into a director of rugby position, with his place at the helm being taken by Victor Matfield.
Coetzee’s role at the Stormers will end when the team plays its last game of the campaign. Coetzee achieved much but was unable to break through the glass ceiling of winning the domestic conference. He is off to coach in Japan with no replacement yet named. It may be too soon for Paul Treu, a contemporary of Juries at the Eagles, as he only joined the Stormers staff this year.
Sharks coaching team
As for the Sharks, a decision has to be made sooner rather than later about the coaching team headed up by Gary Gold. Results have been dismal and discipline worse, and it’s not just the big names who are heading out.
Fred Zeilinga is the best flyhalf to come through the KwaZulu-Natal schools system since Pat Lambie. But at 22, Zeilinga feels unwanted and has signed for the Cheetahs, apparently as part of a player swap with 31-year-old Joe Pietersen.
A union that cannot keep its best young players is doomed to failure and that is also true of the Kings, who will join Super Rugby again next year. It has been confirmed that Lions assistant coach Swys de Bruin will not be moving to Port Elizabeth. De Bruin has opted to continue the partnership with Johan Ackermann that has revitalised Lions rugby.