February used to be a time for training, a chance to get rid of the excess weight piled on during the festive season and to remove the rust of three months away from the oval ball. In the new era, however, rugby for the top players is a 12-month occupation and down time, such as it exists at all, is confined to the last week of December.
The South African season began on February 1 with a series of Varsity Shield games. The Varsity Cup got going the following week and the opening round of fixtures for the new Super 18 is just two weeks hence. Teams involved in the expanded competition have been playing warm-up matches for the past fortnight. The Sharks arranged games in France against Toulon and Toulouse and promptly lost their captain and flyhalf to injury in the first of those fixtures.
Pat Lambie’s shoulder is likely to take the best part of three months to heal, but he is fortunate, because his rival for the Springbok flyhalf berth, Handré Pollard, is out for the season. Pollard didn’t even make it to the first Bulls warm-up game. In an uncontested training exercise at Loftus, he tore knee ligaments so badly that the post-surgery prognosis is six to nine months rest and rehabilitation.
On Friday night, the Kings will hope to put a chaotic start to the year behind them with a warm-up against the Cheetahs in Port Elizabeth. Off-field disputes about player contracts suggested that the Kings would never make it to the field this year. It is far too early to suggest that these issues have been concluded and it is likely that there will be some form of protest at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
The sad fact of the matter is that the Kings line-up for the match is of no more than Currie Cup quality and that will not do in Super Rugby. The governing body Sanzaar (South Africa New Zealand Australia Argentina Rugby) has allowed the three new teams to get on with preparations unmolested so far. Which is all well and good, but when the tournament begins some things will become instantly obvious.
No one is worried about the Argentine team, the Jaguares. They are a battle-hardened bunch, many of whom featured in Argentina’s 2015 World Cup campaign. They are part of one of the South African conferences and play the Cheetahs and Sharks before a bye and a home game against the Chiefs. Given their playing squad and draw, they are a good bet to reach the play-offs.
It is entirely different for the Kings and the new Japanese entrant, the Sunwolves. The latter have only just announced their captain and their squad is still in flux. Shota Horie, a hooker who played two seasons for the Rebels, leads a side missing key players from Japan’s World Cup selection. New Zealand-raised national team captain Michael Leitch will turn out for the Chiefs and fullback Ayumu Goromaru, Japan’s best player at the World Cup, has signed for the Reds. Several others have shunned the local side thanks to lucrative contracts elsewhere.
This is not the way the Sanzaar hoped to see the expanded competition kicking off, but there are other problems, too. Principal among these are variations to the playing conditions. It was Super Rugby that first implemented the four-try bonus point back in 1996. As an innovation that encouraged attacking play, it has since become almost ubiquitous. Now it has been scrapped by Sanzaar.
The new system will see only one bonus point available for try scoring and that will go to the team that scores three more than their opponents. What has raised the ire of some coaches is the fact that the change was only announced earlier this month. According to the Sanzaar chief executive, Andy Marinos, the change was “widely discussed” in the last week of January and adopted because it has been “used to great effect in France over the past few years”.
Quite why something that was never broken was fixed is mystifying. Some of the finest games of Super Rugby’s 20-year existence have seen losing sides throwing caution to the wind in seeking a vital fourth try bonus point. Sanzaar’s argument that teams that have scored four tries tend to throttle back is the sort of baseless accusation that only a committee could come up with.
Similarly, the new law variation adopted at the same time as the bonus point change is an accident waiting to happen. In the event of a penalty being awarded after the hooter has sounded, instead of the ball becoming dead when kicked to touch, the referee is compelled to implement the line-out. Instead of discouraging the driving maul, one of the least palatable of tactics, this change positively encourages it.
What’s more, the disregard shown to time means that games that should be dead amble on through the phases with, inevitably, another and another penalty being conceded and game-changing points being scored in the 85th minute. The International Rugby Board Sevens series has just had a few weeks of controversy over the referee’s failure to apply euthanasia at the appropriate juncture – and now Sanzaar wants more of it.
A glimpse of the future was afforded in the first round of the Varsity Cup, where a new points system has opened up the floodgates of confusion. A try is no longer worth five points. Depending on where it was put in motion on the field, it could be worth five, seven or nine. With a three-point conversion added (another Varsity Cup innovation), a try implemented and scored from inside a team’s own half could be worth 12 points.
And so it was in Cape Town on Monday night that the Ikey Tigers, trailing Shimlas by 11 points with time almost up, got a penalty and had to make a decision. Kick it as close to the opposition try line as possible, score from the line-out and lose, or kick it back into their own half, win the line-out, carry the ball from there to score and win. The game has gone mad.