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All quiet on the southern front


Maybe the holiday has been too long and I have missed something, but there does appear to be a sense of tranquility to South African rugby at the moment that is highly unusual in a nation that, since the ending of isolation, has tended to blunder from one controversy to the next.

Indeed, is it wishful thinking, or is it just possible that South African rugby is being much more efficiently run since Jurie Roux took over as the head honcho and started making more of the big calls as opposed to it being done by the elected officials? It’s something to think about as there does appear to be a lot less for us media hacks to complain about just lately…

Okay, mutterings have been heard from those who wonder at the Southern Kings’ cheek in wanting to have the rules bent for them so they can load their team with extra foreign players. For goodness sake, they fought so long and hard for entry into Super Rugby on the basis of what it could do for bringing through the rugby talent in that area. Can’t they see the hypocrisy?

I have some sympathy for that franchise in that the promotion-relegation system that has been introduced must have made it much more difficult for the Kings to attract new players. But at the same time they’ve known for years that this would be the season they make their entry into the competition so it’s really their fault if they’re not ready.

You do get the feeling that much of the South African rugby public will be hoping for the Kings to fail. It’s probably a natural reaction to the politics that was behind their inclusion at the expense of the Lions. But I’m not among those who hope the Kings trip up. A strong franchise in the Eastern Cape would bring in a refreshing wind of change and be good for our rugby for more than just the obvious reasons.

The Kings aside though, it does all seem very quiet. Rugby writers take this time of the year off as it’s the only time you can sneak in a proper holiday, but usually there is something during the off-period that demands at least the odd opinion column. This is my first in two months, and I don’t think there has been that big a gap between columns since I first started contributing to supersport.com at the start of 2001.

Last year Rassie Erasmus’s resignation as director of rugby at Western Province demanded opinion input as early as the first week of January, and then there was also the vexing issue of the appointment of the Springbok coach. That was an unnecessarily drawn out process that probably should have been concluded in December but was drawn out to the end of January, just weeks before the start of Super Rugby.

It had consequences for the new national coach, Heyneke Meyer, and also for the franchise he had to part ways with, the Bulls. Meyer spent most of the first half of 2012 without assistant coaches to help him with his preparations for the international season. It was far from ideal, and one of the things that will make this year easier for the Bok coach.

There is a much softer run into the new international season for the Boks this time too, with matches against second tier nations providing a less frenetic start than a three-match series against England.

On the franchise front, most of the local teams, at least on paper, look stronger and better equipped now than they were 12 months ago. The Bulls have lost some key management personnel to the Boks, but have made up for that with the acquisition of Victor Matfield as an assistant coach. That’s a massive step forward, as there are few more astute rugby brains than the former champion lock, and I have a suspicion that in time he will be as successful as a coach as he was as a player.

The Bulls did better than expected in last year’s Super Rugby considering they lost a raft of senior and even legendary players, and with the newcomers boasting a year’s experience, hopefully they will be able to challenge strongly for a place in the playoffs.

It’s the Sharks and the Stormers though who look the best South African bets, and not necessarily in that order. They may have lost the Currie Cup final, but the Sharks did appear to rediscover their mojo last season, and with Frans Steyn back they appear to have most bases covered. However, John Plumtree will be holding thumbs that one of his young locks will come through in the way that Eben Etzebeth did for the Stormers 12 months ago.

Talking of Etzebeth, his status as an established international class lock is one of the reasons the Stormers look to have more going for them than we thought this time last year. Back then Etzebeth just had potential. And there are other young players in the Western Cape who are now frontline players whereas they weren’t a year or two ago.

The psychological effect of finally breaking the trophy drought in the Currie Cup can also not be underestimated, while the arrival of several Lions players has further boosted depth. This time last year the talk in the Cape was about who had been lost, this time around it focuses on the gains – that surely is a good thing.

As someone who doesn’t believe you should try to fix something that’s not broken, I’m not sure I agree with the reappointment of Schalk Burger as Stormers captain. It’s not that I don’t rate Schalk, just that Jean de Villiers, to my mind, is the best leader in the business.

There again, this should be a year where the Stormers rotate players more, and I recall that when the great Blues side of the early part of the Super 12 era used to visit South Africa, it was not All Black leader Sean Fitzpatrick who captained them, but Zinzan Brooke. They reversed the roles when it came to national level, and it worked for New Zealand and the Blues. Maybe a similar arrangement will work for South Africa and the Stormers too…


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