Super Rugby build-up heats up
The build-up to the Super Rugby season gathers pace this weekend as for the first time this year all the South African teams will be playing warm-up games.
For some, such as the Sharks, it is all about getting a first feel of rugby under match conditions and getting used to the contact again. They play the Leopards at Woodburn Stadium in Maritzburg on Friday night, with Frans Steyn leading a mix and match combination which is some way off full strength.
The Sharks complete their onfield preparations against the Pumas in Nelspruit next week, and it will be during that game that coach John Plumtree will start to get his combinations together in preparation for the opening match of the competition the following weekend.
There isn’t too much doubt about where the focus is for the Sharks at the moment – they lost their Currie Cup final against Western Province in October because of the lineout, and Plumtree is expecting a lot of young Pieter-Steph du Toit as he takes his opportunity to fit into the position vacated by Steven Sykes, who has moved to the Southern Kings.
“I’m very excited about Pieter-Steph, he has a big future. He can jump at the front of the lineout and in the middle,” said Plumtree ahead of Friday night’s game. He will be hoping that Du Toit can make the same rapid improvement that Eben Etzebeth did in his first season with the Stormers last year.
For most of the other teams, this weekend will see them play for at least the second time this year, although the Cheetahs and the Kings have played more often than that. The need for the Kings to get as much game time as possible is obvious – they are a completely new team. For the Cheetahs it is less obvious why they are playing so many games as their depth is thin enough as it is without risking injury before the season even starts.
They’re in Polokwane on Saturday to play the Bulls, and with the Bulls giving their big guns a run for the first time, their early season rust may give the Cheetahs an opportunity to follow up their victory against the Stormers in Bloemfontein last week. If they do that, and get confidence out of the experience, then playing the extra games may offer them more than just a boost to their union’s stretched coffers.
The Bulls though are unlikely to be too fazed either way about the result – like the Stormers’ Allister Coetzee, Bulls coach Frans Ludeke is talking a lot about the processes rather than results. He also has a similar attitude to Coetzee when it comes to overloading the players with warm-up games ahead of a tough and long competitive season.
“Super Rugby has become such a long competition that it doesn’t make sense to play more than one or two warm-up games. I just want to make sure all the players get a chance to get one game under their belt before we play our first Super Rugby match,” said Ludeke this week.
“The guys have played a lot of competitive rugby together and know each other well so we shouldn’t experience too many early season blues.”
They of course come up against the Stormers in the first game at Loftus on 22 February, and it looks like both teams will be in the same space going into the derby, with the Stormers also only calling up their big guns for this week. They play the Boland Cavaliers at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday afternoon, and while there will be no Schalk Burger, the likes of Andries Bekker and Siya Kolisi are both making their returns to the playing field.
The Stormers coach has called on his team to adopt a policy of all-out attack in this game, which should both please the crowd and also serve a useful purpose in that it will fine-tune the execution. The Stormers will have considerably less opportunity to score against the Bulls than they will against a Boland team that isn’t up to Super Rugby standard defensively, so they need to get a good conversion rate on Saturday so that they can be clinical when they get to Loftus.
“We are aware the opening game is a big one, that it’s away from home and it’s going to be tough,” said Coetzee.
“It’s a matter of building the curve and picking up the graph every time we play. I wasn’t happy with some aspects of our game in Bloemfontein last week, and execution was one of those things. We need to improve that against Boland. Everything we do now, including the game against Boland, is aimed at getting it right on 22 February.”
Perhaps the most interesting game this weekend is the one at Ellis Park between the Lions and the Kings in that the match will provide a good test of the Port Elizabeth team’s readiness to play Super Rugby. There should also be a bit of heat in the game given that the Lions are the side that had to drop out of Super Rugby to make space for the Kings and a win against them when they have so many players on loan to other franchises will be seen by their supporters as a statement.
Weekend Super Rugby warm-up fixtures all times CAT (SA, GMT+2)
Sharks v Leopards, Pietermaritzburg 7pm
Lions v Southern Kings, Johannesburg 2:15pm
Boland Cavaliers v Stormers, Cape Town 2:45pm
Bulls v Cheetahs, Polokwane 5pm