It’s a quiet weekend in Super Rugby with the Lions, Cheetahs, Crusaders and Rebels all enjoying a bye. It may be especially quiet at the NIB Stadium in Perth on Sunday, where the Force take on the Kings in the final fixture of the round.
Both sides know that they have nothing to play for at this early stage of the season and that, furthermore, they are unlikely to be invited to the party next year. Not very “Super”, you might say. Add in the fact that the Bulls are playing the Sunwolves for the second time in three weeks — this time in Tokyo — and you have just five fixtures worthy of attention. Not very “Super” at all.
Unless you happen to be in South Africa, that is. Two local fixtures will go a long way towards establishing whether we have genuine contenders or paper tigers. The Sharks play the Jaguares in Durban and the Stormers host the Chiefs in Cape Town.
The latter contest is particularly intriguing, with both teams having won all five of their fixtures so far this season. The odds favour the Chiefs, who have won the previous three contests between the two.
The last of those was particularly humiliating for the Stormers, losing 60-21 at Newlands in the 2016 quarterfinal.
But, if the statistics provided by Opta Sports are anything to go by, Stormers coach Robbie Fleck is building a formidable attacking force this season. The Cape side leads the competition in carries, metres made and offloads, and is second in clean breaks, defenders beaten, points scored and tries.
But, and it’s a big but, the Stormers’ wins have come against the Kings, Cheetahs, Bulls, Sunwolves and Jaguares. Take away the Jaguares, of whom more later, and the remaining four sides have four wins between them in 2017. And it would be a fairly safe bet to assume that none of the quartet will make it through to the knockout stages.
Furthermore, the Stormers have two games left before heading off to New Zealand for the most onerous of tours, having to play the Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes on successive Saturdays. Log points will be hard to come by on that trip.
So the Stormers need to look to their laurels and maximise points over the next two matches. They know what the Chiefs are capable of and that the quality of rugby that was good enough against their first five opponents will not suffice this time. That fact is borne out by the corresponding win chart, which reveals that the Chiefs have beaten three of their Kiwi rivals, together with the Rebels and the Bulls.
This year, more than any other, the standard of rugby being played by the five New Zealand franchises bears little relation to the rest of the tournament.
Ironically, it may signal a downturn in the fortunes of the All Blacks, with the selectors unsure of who to select for the national side. “May” being the operative word.
Meanwhile, up the coast in Durban, the Sharks host the Jaguares on the back of an epic encounter with the Lions last Saturday. It is never truer than when times are hard that the next great Springbok revival is only a few gifted youngsters away. As much as critics may claim that local derbies tell us nothing about international strength, the Johannesburg game was so compelling that it suggested otherwise.
And, if there is to be a genuine revival for coach Allister Coetzee after a benighted 2016, it should be with the rapier instead of the broadsword. The key moment in the game was when Lions flank Kwagga Smith used his sevens skills to work space and put Jaco Kriel away for the winning try.
For several years now Springbok back rows have been dysfunctional because of the demand for size. Smith is a throwback to the old days of the wing forward, a player whose job it is to recycle the ball quickly at the breakdowns, to link with the backs and generally to eschew the bash, bash, bash that we have become sick to the back teeth of.
Then there was the by now customary big game from Curwin Bosch. The youngster did all the right things at flyhalf, then slotted into fullback as to the manner born. His drop goal from 55m was a wake-up call for the Lions and, if his late effort from 60m had not hit the crossbar, Kriel’s try may never have happened.
After a crushing disappointment, this week the Sharks have to find a way to raise their game against the Jaguares. The Argentine side are a different prospect in 2017 following a disappointing debut last year. Their only blemish this time around was a 32-25 defeat at Newlands against the Stormers in round two. They scored three tries that day and are level on 18 log points with the Sharks, but with a game in hand.
Like the Sharks and the Lions, the Jaguares have the benefit of not facing New Zealand opposition in log play. They are comfortable in South African conditions and have already beaten the Lions, the Cheetahs and the Kings. If the Sharks can match them at the breakdowns they should prevail, but if a few key performers misfire it could go horribly wrong.