Super Rugby season begins in Melbourne next Thursday, the kind of unlikely place and time that has given the competition a bad name and forced organisers to consider radical changes. What’s in store for the five South African teams?
Last year was a period of rebuilding for the Pretoria franchise after several players moved on or retired after the 2015 World Cup. They only missed out on the playoffs by a single log point, however, and there is reason to believe they will be better this year.
At the head of the list of improvements is Handré Pollard. The outrageously gifted Springbok flyhalf missed out on playing the whole of last year because of a knee injury. But such is the regard in which he is held that, far from easing back into things slowly, he is likely to captain the Bulls from day one.
Preseason wins against the Lions in Harare and the Chiefs in Brisbane mean the Bulls will hit the ground running when they meet the Stormers in Cape Town on the opening weekend.
The Currie Cup champions have lost heavily in both of their preseason games, against the Stormers in Harare and the Sharks in Umlazi. Back in 2013 they made the Super Rugby playoffs as the good-news story of South African rugby but in the following three seasons they were never out of the bottom four on the combined log.
Their best forward, Springbok lock Lood de Jager, signed for the Bulls in the off season and without him they will struggle to win line-out ball. There is talent in the side, with wing Sergeal Petersen likely to become a Springbok this year and flank Uzair Cassiem having made his international debut on the end-of-season tour last year.
They also have a cerebral coach in Franco Smith, and a pipeline of talent from Grey College and Shimlas. But it’s hard to see the Cheetahs improving on the last three years.
Last year’s beaten finalists have a tougher task this time around as they attempt to live up to the lofty expectations of their reinvigorated fan base. It’s possible that coach Johan Ackermann has now stopped kicking himself for sending a second-string team to Argentina in the final weekend of log play in 2016.
On that occasion the Lions lost to the Jaguares 34-22, ceding top spot on the overall log to the Hurricanes, who duly went on to beat the Lions 20-3 in the final in Wellington.
There is little doubt that, had the fixture been played at Ellis Park, the boot would have been on the other foot.
This year the Lions will avoid the New Zealand teams until the playoffs, a huge boost to their chances. On the downside, one of their unsung heroes, Warwick Tecklenburg, has taken early retirement to return to the family farm.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the Sharks made the playoffs last year. But creeping in as the eighth-placed side forced them to make a journey across time zones to Wellington, where they were duly crushed 41-0 by the Hurricanes. The potential of the side was shown earlier in the season, however, when they humbled the same team 32-15 at Kings Park.
There is no doubt that the squad has talent: Pat Lambie, Cobus Reinach, Lwazi Mvovo, Curwin Bosch, the Du Preez twins, Tendai Mtawarira and Chiliboy Ralepelle form the core of a good side. New coach Robert du Preez will face his real test when his first-choice squad is not available. If key players stay fit, however, a playoff berth is not out of the question.
It seems incredible in retrospect, but the Stormers were just two points shy of topping the combined log in 2016. The missing points were courtesy of a draw against the Sunwolves in Singapore, part of a mid-season dip that saw them lose to the Waratahs at Newlands and the Bulls at Loftus.
Coach Robbie Fleck will have to make do without his captain, Juan de Jongh, for at least the first month, and wing Leolin Zas is out for the season with a broken leg.
But the arrival in the Cape of Bulls stalwart Bjorn Basson and the return from Sevens duty of Seabelo Senatla should more than make up for other omissions.
As usual, the Stormers will be hard to stop if they get on a roll. And, as usual, they will then have to find a way to overcome years of under-achievement in the knockout stages.
Luckless Kings a dead franchise walking
In 2016 the Kings franchise was hamstrung by a legal battle with former players who had not been paid. The South African Rugby Union (Saru) took over the administration and, even though the franchise managed to raise a team for its 15 games, it won just two of them. But if you thought the Kings had nothing to play for last season, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Sanzaar (South Africa New Zealand Argentina Australia Rugby) is restructuring the unwieldy and unpopular 18-team Super Rugby format. Consultants Accenture are putting together models for the future of the competition, at least two of which see no future for the Kings.
One model suggests that South Africa and Australia lose one team each to reduce the tournament to 16 teams. Another says Australia should lose two teams; a third wants South Africa to lose two teams. Yet another model, the Oprah Winfrey one perhaps, says that everybody gets a franchise and that, instead of contracting, the event should expand to 20 teams to allow a North American franchise.
In the event that some form of logic prevails, the Kings is a dead franchise walking. As the last side to be admitted, it should be the first out. The Kings will be joined on the scrapheap by either the Rebels or the Force. The Rebels were the last of the five Australian sides to join, in 2011, and their results have never come close to justifying their inclusion.
It’s possible that the Force will be the team to be cut, and for similar reasons to the Kings. Last season the Australian Rugby Union paid A$800 000 to bail out the Perth franchise. But the union cannot continue to pour good money after bad, particularly because, as with Saru, it is battling to attract sponsors.
The implosion of the Kings was a result of a major sponsorship falling through. Their quality players have jumped ship and what remains is a hotchpotch of talented youngsters, many of them black, and journeymen players who have been rejected by other franchises. It is unlikely that the squad will improve on last year’s results and, by this time next year, the Kings will be consigned to the dustbin of history.