A month ago there seemed to be light at the end of the tunnel for South African rugby. The Stormers were in the middle of a six-match winning streak and the Lions edged aside the Sharks 34-29 in a high-quality encounter in Johannesburg. So what went wrong?
Last week the Lions laboured at home to a 24-21 win over the Jaguares, the Stormers were annihilated by the Crusaders in Christchurch and the Sharks drew 9-9 in Durban with the Rebels. The last encounter drew comparisons with the worst that Super Rugby has ever seen, generally accepted as the 5-6 defeat by the Sharks against the Reds in 2004.
In the early days of the Super 12, cynical northern hemisphere critics, unused to running rugby, compared it with basketball. The same critics watching last weekend might have been reminded of the Eton Wall Game, a contest in which crowds of boys wrestle with each other for hours, and the ball is rarely seen.
In 48 hours five of our six franchises produced precisely nothing memorable. It was down to the much-derided Kings to put a smile on local faces, with an unlikely win against the Waratahs in Sydney. What that result proved was that, although South African rugby might be at a low ebb, things are far worse in Australia.
Is it possible to ascribe the declining standards to mid-season fatigue and ennui? Or is it more fundamental than that? News leaking out of the Springbok camp of representations being made to European-based Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn would suggest that Allister Coetzee is not pleased with what he sees.
Steyn’s versatility has always been highly regarded and the Springbok coach, seeing an immediate future without the injured Handré Pollard, Pat Lambie and Rohan Janse van Rensburg, needs midfield cover urgently. Du Plessis was ejected in favour of his long-term understudy, Adriaan Strauss, last season. Strauss’s decision to retire from international rugby at the end of 2016 has reminded everyone of Du Plessis’s enduring quality.
There is renewed talk of the need to retain the talent that has gone north for bigger wage packets, and the imminent departure of Johan Ackermann to Gloucester has brought the unthinkable into focus.
What if, it has been suggested, Ackermann was to host a regular get-together for British-based South African players? It is only a short step from there to a fixture or two, and from there to a franchise or three based in Europe, playing in European competitions. The expected break-up of Super Rugby after the 2019 World Cup might be the catalyst.
In the short term, however, solutions have to be found for current playing woes. The Stormers can hardly feel confident travelling to Dunedin to face the Highlanders on Friday. They were blown away in the first half hour by the Crusaders last week. There is a distinct possibility the same might happen again.
The Sharks have to fly to Buenos Aires to play the Jaguares. They will have to do so without their top try scorer, Kobus van Wyk, and their principle playmaker, André Esterhuizen. Van Wyk injured himself in the warm-up ahead of the match against the Rebels, and Esterhuizen received a six-week ban for a dangerous tackle, which drew a red card in the 18th minute.
Without those two, the Sharks simply imploded against the Rebels. The pressure even got to the gifted Curwin Bosch, who missed a simple penalty he would have converted with his eyes closed a month ago. The Sharks have never lost to the Jaguares, but that’s not the way to bet on Saturday night.
It is up to the Lions to restore faith in the local product, it seems. They play the Force in Perth on Saturday at the beginning of a three-week tour. Before last week’s poor showing in Johannesburg, this game loomed as a possible five-pointer for the Lions. Now victory is far from certain, something underlined by the history of fixtures between the two.
Remarkably, given their current standing in the competition, the Lions have only ever beaten the Force once. That was a decade ago, when they scraped home 25-24 in Perth. Since then the Force have won six in a row, including three in Johannesburg.
Significantly, however, the two sides have not met for three years, an anomaly entirely because of the foolish conference system, which is responsible for much that is wrong with the competition. Right now, for instance, the Stormers have built up such a lead in Africa 1 that they can lose three in a row in New Zealand and still be at the top of the four-horse race, guaranteeing them a better-than-even chance of a home quarterfinal.
The Lions also have a cushion in Africa 2 and, if they beat the Force and the Jaguares beat the Sharks, their lead will increase to at least 12 points. Given the remaining fixtures in log play, that is the kind of lead that cannot be chased down.
It might then give rise to questionable selections, as the coaching staff try to keep their key players fresh for the knockout stages. The standard seen last weekend suggests that any further weakening of playing personnel will not be a pretty sight.