And Super Rugby's Bok team is.....
SuperWrap Week 18, 2016:
"The drought is over! That is the happy news we bring long-suffering Lions fans everywhere..."
Those are easy words to write today, but that wasn’t the case when the SuperWrap used it as an intro back in February of 2014, a mere two weeks after the Joburg outfit’s return from a Super Rugby wilderness.
Eyebrows raised as readily as bread dough in the sun when we responded to a Lions victory the previous Saturday by writing: "Store away the fact that you’ve shown the rugby world that no matter how dire the circumstances, if you’re determined enough there is always a way out."
Doubts, like shooters on a ladies night, were the order of the day when we wrote after further success: "For more than a decade now South African teams have only had success at this level using the conservative, low-risk, percentage-driven template introduced by Heyneke Meyer’s Bulls. The Lions can show us that there is another way. Lions success will give all of us options.
"Lions success could mean that South African coaches no longer have just that one mould that all players are made to fit. Lions success could be what finally frees the heaps of exciting young talent coming through our ranks.
"These three wins made the Pride proud once more. These three wins could make the whole nation proud someday."
There weren’t a lot of naysayers left by the time Springbok coach Allister Coetzee swallowed his pride and sent on those self-same Lions to turn a test and a series on its head in Johannesburg exactly one month ago.
Now everyone is on the bandwagon that the SuperWrap took so many body blows for when we tried to kick-start it back then. So much so that no one will argue with us about the fact that we have no less than nine Lions players in our Bok Barometer team of the year. It could easily have been more.
No one wants to argue with us about our words back then anymore, so we’re left with no choice but to do it ourselves.
So here goes: we were wrong.
The Lions are dominating the South African rugby landscape in a way that we last saw in 2009 (when the Bulls topped the Super Rugby log and three of our other four sides finished in the bottom five). This may not be such a good thing for Springbok rugby, though. At least not in the short term.
We said that Lions success would “give us options”, but it turns out it may well have taken them away. We hoped Lions success would “free exciting young talent”, instead it froze existing ones.
The problem is that Lions success came so suddenly and decisively that everyone else had to drop whatever they were busy with to start catching up.
It left us with our three big Unions - the Bulls, the Stormers and the Sharks - all caught in between game plans in this 2016 season, with catastrophic results. The former couldn’t make the playoffs and the latter two showed us this past weekend that they shouldn’t have either.
The problem for the big three is that they are not starting from scratch the way the Lions did. They are forced to learn a new way of playing inside the toughest provincial tournament in the world. Every little mistake they make is pounced on mercilessly.
The big three also provide the Springboks with the bulk of their players, and as the teams’ results tanked, so did the form of guys we’d reasonably expect to represent us at International level.
At the Sharks you have Bok regulars like Willie le Roux, JP Pietersen, Lwazi Mvovo, Tendai Mtwarira and Coenie Oosthuizen so off colour that very few questions will be asked if none of them were chosen to play in green-and-gold the rest of the year.
At the Stormers that confused concoction that they call a game plan has also robbed guys like Frans Malherbe and Damien de Allende of any semblance of form. Remarkably their two locks remained uninfluenced by all the turmoil around them.
The unfortunate upshot of all this is that any team chosen solely on Super Rugby form this season will have very little test experience. Our Bok Barometer for 2016, for example, only has a meagre 105 test caps.
That’s OK for us, but not if you’re a Springbok coach trying to be competitive in this year’s Rugby Championship.
Allister won’t be guided by form only, and he shouldn’t be. Form is fickle and temporary. If he selected his team the way we do ours, he’d have a brand-new one every season. It is a recipe for disaster at that level.
Finding a balance between getting his form players experienced and his experienced players on form will be a tough challenge for Coetzee, and we wish him all the luck in the world for the season ahead. He’ll probably need it.
In a year or two from now our big three will hopefully be much closer to their stated goals of playing a more complete brand of rugby and have results to show for it. Out-of-form Springboks should become a rarer sight.
But for now, let’s look at who the best South African players were this year.
Throughout the Super Rugby season we chose weekly Bok Barometer teams. Those selections were our four selectors’ answers to the question “who played the best in a certain position this past weekend”.
Now that we’ve reached the end of the season we crunch the numbers on all those selections and come up with a team consisting of the players with the most the most ticks behind their names.
We had a couple of ties this year, so it’s probably fair to discuss those quickly.
At inside centre we had Rohan Janse van Rensburg and the Shane Gates with the same number of votes. At outside centre we had Lionel Mapoe and Francois Venter neck-and-neck, while at fullback we had a three-way tie between Jesse Kriel, Cheslin Kolbe and Willie le Roux. In all three cases we were able to decide a winner based on the fact that he also gained votes in a different position.
It wasn’t so easy at lock. There we had to choose between Pieter-Steph du Toit and RG Snyman. Both had exactly the same numberof overall votes. This was the only instance this year where our chief selector had to ask himself who he would choose for the Springboks.
The rest of the team pretty much chose themselves.
So let’s get to it. Ladies and Gentlemen, after months of head-scratching and spirited discussion we are proud to give you our team of the year…
Bok Barometer for 2016:
15. Jesse Kriel (Bulls), 14. Ruan Combrinck (Lions), 13. Francois Venter (Cheetahs), 12. Rohan Janse van Rensburg (Lions), 11. Courtnall Skosan (Lions), 10. Elton Jantjies (Lions), 9. Faf de Klerk (Lions), 8. Warren Whiteley (Lions), 7. Siya Kolisi (Stormers), 6. Jaco Kriel (Lions), 5. Pieter-Steph du Toit (Stormers), 4. Eben Etzebeth (Stormers), 3. Vincent Koch (Stormers), 2. Malcolm Marx (Lions), 1. Dylan Smith (Lions).
This year the votes were spread out well enough for us to be able to give you bench as well. If you’re not happy with one of our selections, feel free to substitute.
Replacements: 16: Edgar Marutlulle (Kings), 17. Lizo Gqoboka (Bulls) 18. Maks van Dyk (Cheetahs), 19. RG Snyman (Bulls), 20. Lappies Labuschagne (Bulls), 21. Nic Groom (Stormers), 22. Jean-Luc du Plessis (Stormers), 23. Sergeal Petersen (Cheetahs).
Try of the year:
With so many mismatches under the new conference system we had plenty of ridiculous tries to choose from this year. In the end we decided on one that sums up what modern rugby is all about. The Chiefs scored this one from inside their 22 and showed a remarkable ability to keep the ball in the outside channels and past the line-break.
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Match of the year
Saturday’s first semifinal will be a replay of what we thought was the best match of the year. When the Hurricanes and the Chiefs met back in April, no-one could have predicted how far they’d go, the quality of the play should have given us a pointer, though.
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That wraps up the SuperWrap for 2016. Thank you very much for joining us again this year as we shared the highs and the lows, but especially the laughs of what was perhaps the strangest Super Rugby season yet.
We don’t know what next year will hold in store for us, but as long as there is a tongue to stick in a cheek we’ll be back to bring you everything you need to know (and a whole lot you didn’t), wrap-style.
Until then… GO LIONS!