The machinations of the rugby body comprising South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina and Australia, known as Sanzaar, continue, with leaked information about Super Rugby’s future being less than reliable. What the men in suits don’t seem to realise is that the longer they delay confronting us with the ugly truth, the less anyone is going to care.
There is already a feeling that whatever happens this year doesn’t count as teams go through the motions. Even the bizarre logic of the current competition, which sees the Brumbies flying high on the overall log with two wins from five games, scarcely causes outrage. We saw it last year, pointed it out and got on with life.
That the Brumbies have the best record of any Australian side should worry Sanzaar more than is apparent. In fact, the five Australian franchises have managed only six wins from 23 games in 2017. Five of those wins have been local derbies, with the only victory against foreign rivals owned by the Reds, who beat the Sharks in week one by two points.
In that game, the Sharks led for long periods and if Pat Lambie’s late penalty attempt had not sailed wide, they would have won. Surprisingly, given the standard of their overall play this year, that loss is the only blemish on the Sharks’ fixture card. They have gone on to beat the Brumbies, the Waratahs, the Kings and the Cheetahs.
It would be surprising if that streak continued after this weekend, however, for next up is the Lions in Johannesburg. The two sides have played four of the same rivals this season, so it should be possible to pick a winner from the available statistics.
We know that the Lions are likely to score more tries than the Sharks. They have 28 up to this point, compared with the Sharks’ 13, both from five games. Indeed, three Lions players — Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Courtnall Skosan and Malcolm Marx — have 13 tries between them.
The Lions go forward very well. They are second in the rankings for tries, points scored, clean breaks and defenders beaten. They also don’t kick the ball away as much as the other South African franchises do. The Sharks are better defensively than the Lions, completing 87% of their tackles and lying fifth overall in turnovers won. Put simply, the Lions play well with the ball, the Sharks without it. On that basis it should be a good game.
Statistics sometimes obscure what is really happening. For instance, Sharks back-rower Jean-Luc du Preez leads the competition in tackles made, with 63. That doesn’t tell us how well he operates in confined spaces. Du Preez has an ungainly style, but he carries the ball past and through tackles exceptionally well. In a country that tends to produce forwards happy to take the hit and recycle the ball, Du Preez stands out.
Even the best statistics can’t really tell us about that great unquantifiable attribute: form. This week, the second Bok training squad of the season was announced and Faf de Klerk’s name wasn’t in it. He lacks form.
It is incredible to think that only 10 months ago De Klerk was the best Springbok on display in the three-Test series against Ireland. He made try-saving tackles in all three games that had a material effect on the series being won 2-1 by South Africa.
And yet by the time the Boks toured Europe in November, he had lost his place to Rudy Paige. This week, De Klerk will compete directly with Jaco Reinach, who has replaced him in the training squad.
Adding spice to the occasion will be the clash of the fly-halves, players who depend on their scrum-halves for decent ball to work with. The Lions have Elton Jantjies, who failed to take his chance in the Bok number 10 jersey last year. The Sharks have Curwin Bosch, who may inherit that jersey sooner rather than later.
Bosch is 19 and, through no fault of his own, is now in a tug-of-war involving the Sharks, the Boks and the South African Under-20 team. The U-20s want him to go to the World Championships in May and June, the Sharks want him for Super Rugby and the Boks have a three-Test series against France in June.
It is in the nature of the game to make fools of selectors. Before the start of the season, the return of Handré Pollard from long-term injury, the availability of Lambie and the constant possibility of a big game or three from Jantjies meant the Bok flyhalf position was sewn up. But Lambie is injured again, Pollard is playing in an average Bulls team and Jantjies is, well, Jantjies.
So Bosch may get his chance, despite his inexperience and his known defensive frailties. How he performs this weekend will go a long way towards deciding matters. On the big stage against a roaring Lions team, his courage and form will be tested to the full. It is up to Reinach, Du Preez and André Esterhuizen to protect him. That’s what you do with prize assets: look after them and, in the long term, they’ll look after you.