It really isn’t rocket science
It really isn’t rocket science. If I was given money for every time I used that expression when responding to questions about how the South African conference table in Vodacom Super Rugby has turned out, I would be a millionaire a couple of times over.
The Sharks and Stormers started out the league season as favourites to win the conference based on the squads they started the season with.
In my view the Sharks had a slight edge for I was convinced Western Province’s Currie Cup triumph last October might count against the Stormers by making them complacent and prompting them to neglect areas that perhaps needed working on.
And the past few weeks have shown the pre-season views to be entirely valid. The return of injured players to the Durban team and the correction of the basic errors plus improvement to the tight phase platform for the one from Cape Town has seen the two coastal teams finishing the season looking stronger than the two South African teams that finished above them.
Anyone want to argue against that view must try and explain how the Stormers got to rack up a tally of 58 points against just 16, and six tries to one, against the Cheetahs and Bulls in the two matches played at Newlands over the past fortnight. Home ground advantage can’t explain away such a wide disparity.
Does part of the reason for that come down to the fact that at last the Bulls are experiencing the impact of the sort of injuries that plagued the two coastal teams earlier in the year? In my view it does, not that it really requires rocket science to figure that out.
You may wonder why the Sharks are included in this analysis when they lost to the Bulls, but that they came so close to beating the Bulls, at Loftus nogal, with their makeshift backline did underline the point. With their first choice pack back together, suddenly the Sharks looked the force that they were when they finished last season like a runaway train.
Of course supporters of the Bulls and Cheetahs won’t like that reasoning because it will be seen as denigrating their teams' achievements. They shouldn’t look at it like that.
The Bulls deserve immense credit for the way they have challenged this season considering how many top players they have lost from their golden era. And if Crusaders knock the Chiefs out of the race in the semifinal stage, they could still win the trophy.
The Cheetahs have also made dramatic improvements to their game. They’ve been lucky with injuries this season and also had a much easier draw than a team like the Stormers (Cheetahs missed Crusaders and Brumbies, Stormers missed Western Force and Highlanders), but compared to where they were, they’ve done well and punched above their weight. No-one at the start of the year would have imagined we would reach this point with them still having at least one game still to play.
But giving credit to the successful teams should not mean you lose sight of the facts. And to me it is a statement of fact that the knock-on effect of playing in the playoffs of every competition over the past few seasons caught up with both the Sharks and Stormers.
When people told me there was a crisis at the Sharks I told them there was no crisis, and I invoked that expression again when people started to clamour for the head of coach John Plumtree.
It really wasn’t rocket science why the Sharks had gone wrong. The crisis, as people were calling it, was really no crisis at all, but just a temporary blip that teams go through when ravaged by injury. In my view, a change in coach should not have been necessary.
As people tend to have short memories a few wins at the start of the Currie Cup campaign will be seen as justification for the changes that the Sharks have made, but again the reality is different. Making the Currie Cup final should not be something to be hoped for from the new Sharks coaches, it should be an expectation.
The Sharks have made the last four finals, and five of the last six, winning two of them. The way the Sharks consistently in the past managed to adjust their game to cover for the loss of key Springbok tight forwards during the Currie Cup and still topped the log was always to me an indication that their coaches could coach.
You might ask why they didn’t manage that when injuries hit this season. Well, the answer to that doesn’t require rocket science either – the injuries were just coming so thick and fast that it was impossible to build up any kind of continuity in selection.
And in modern times, when so many aspects of rugby have become so technical, a team that hasn’t played together does struggle. The Sharks' injuries reached a point where they had to go outside the squad for reinforcements. Again, it’s not really rocket science…
The Stormers were impacted by injury as badly as the Sharks were, but their strong run at the close of the season showed that they also had technical issues to sort out.
The pack that beat the Bulls was still without the following first choice players – Malherbe, Liebenberg, Bekker, Kolisi and Vermeulen (I don’t count Schalk anymore because he’s been out for so long) – but the first phase play was so much more consistent in the last five matches than it had been before that.
Could it be that it is because they have a platform to play off, rather than because the pressure was off, that the Stormers backs were suddenly playing with more freedom on attack?
Some put the flair shown against the Bulls down to a release of pressure, but then there was massive pressure on the Stormers when they faced the high-riding Brumbies and Chiefs after two opening defeats.
The Stormers ended up scoring seven tries across those two matches against good defensive teams. They looked like they were playing with freedom on attack in those games, which happened to also coincide with good lineout and scrumming performances.
A coincidence? I say not. But again, it really isn’t rocket science…