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Rugby | Vodacom Super Rugby

Lions celebrate © Gallo Images

Wrap: Slow beginnings of a revolution?



A look at the finishing standings of the 2017 edition of Vodacom Super Rugby does not tell the full story of the effort put in by most of the South African teams to embrace a more dynamic and adventurous playing style.

The Lions were the leaders when it came to innovation before this year and it remained that way, but the other franchises made a notable effort to follow their lead and there was talk of a rugby revolution in playing style.

Although it didn’t bring immediate success, there were glimpses of potential and signs that most teams were shaking off the traditional conservative South African rugby yolk.

The Lions did one better than the year before in that this time they did finish top of the overall log and put in a creditable performance in a home final where their chances of winning were destroyed by the sending off of their tearaway flank Kwagga Smith.

They were probably destined to lose the decider anyway as the Crusaders, brilliant throughout the season and unbeaten for much of it, were slicker and were winning the small battles before Smith’s departure following an unfortunate clumsy challenge on a Crusaders player in the air.

However, they fought back well enough with 14 men later in the game to introduce an element of doubt.

It was Johan Ackermann’s last year in charge as coach before departing to Bristol, and the big question mark hovering over the Lions’ ability to do one better in 2018, when the new format might make it more difficult, is how they will do with a new man in charge in Swys de Bruyn.

One thing is certain though: provided he is fit, the Lions do have an outstanding captain in Warren Whiteley and the Springboks suffered due to his unavailability once he was injured after just two test matches.

That injury prevented Whiteley from leading the side in the knockouts, although Jaco Kriel did a good job in his absence.

The player culture is good at the Lions and they boast continuity that should ensure they remain competitive. There is also plenty of talent coming through their junior ranks.

However, they could face stiffer opposition from within their own country next year than they have over the past few seasons.

STORMERS FADE

The Stormers ended second on the combined South African log in 2017, well off the pace, 22 points adrift of the Lions and one ahead of the Sharks.

It needs to be recalled though that the Stormers were in the conference that played against New Zealand opposition, and that made it tougher.

They started well, and the win against the Chiefs at Newlands duly avenged the one-sided defeat to that team in the previous year’s quarterfinal.

However, while the Stormers in the early phases of the season did the most to show the benefits of the bigger focus on skills that was ushered in nationally after the coaching indaba the previous October, they lost their zip once they were well beaten by the Lions at Newlands on Easter Saturday.

From there they went to New Zealand, where they were well beaten in all three games, and the sublime skills that had wowed their fans earlier in the campaign appeared to be forgotten.

Their skills coach, former Aucklander Greg Feeney, has always maintained that the upskilling of South African players is not an overnight process. So, it will be interesting to see how the Stormers benefit from another off-season of doing the drills that Feeney introduced.

They should be better at it next year and able to sustain it for longer, and the one thing they do have going for them is a potentially formidable pack. A large part of the Bok pack that was better than the All Black eight in a Newlands Rugby Championship game was made up of Stormers players.

Where they could struggle is at the back, where their flyhalf depth has been denuded by injury and the departure of Robert du Preez and a few other players, such as Kurt Coleman and Brandon Thomson. A lot will hinge on young Damian Willemse making the step up at flyhalf.

The Sharks made more of a noise this year in the Currie Cup than in Super Rugby, and the jury is still out on whether the Sharks are embracing the more expansive running game in the same way as the other unions are trying to.

Their new coach Robert du Preez did pay lip service to attacking rugby early in the year but then back-tracked with comments made on the eve of the Currie Cup final.

The Durbanites do have pace out wide and Kobus van Wyk is underrated nationally, but they lack a genuine quality fullback and they spent most of the year relying on forward dominance and playing for position.

Their experience in the Currie Cup final, when lack of forward superiority meant they looked bereft of an coherent plan, should have been a wake-up call.

It is also going to be interesting to see if Curwin Bosch can recover from his harrowing experiences when targeted by WP in two Currie Cup games at the end of the domestic season.

It is not just his defence that needs to be worked on, there is a growing feeling that he is shy of contact even when he is carrying the ball.

There is also no doubt though that he is a prodigious talent, and he showed that at various stages of the Super Rugby season.

That was never more so than in the second game against the Waratahs, where he came onto the field for the injured Pat Lambie very early on and then dominated in a comfortable win.

Former Sharks coach and Bok assistant coach Dick Muir has joined the Sharks coaching staff as a backline and attack consultant, but it appears he may have a bigger role to play than that.

Muir has an all-out attack rugby philosophy, so don’t be surprised if the Sharks approach to the game is transformed when Super Rugby arrives again in February.

SURPRISE PACKAGE

The surprise package among the South African teams was the Southern Kings.

The Port Elizabeth side was given no hope at the start but played an innovative brand of rugby that enabled them to shock a couple of Australian sides, including the Waratahs in Sydney, before scoring their historic first ever win over a fellow South African team when they pipped the Sharks at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in one of the best matches of the season locally.

Talking of good games, two Sharks matches against the Lions, one of them a quarterfinal, provided top drawer entertainment and close finishes and plenty of drama.

In both matches they played in Johannesburg, they could have been regarded as unlucky, and the Lions had to rely on a late penalty to prevail in the quarterfinal.

But a game that was as exciting as any we saw played in South Africa yet won’t be mentioned often as such in Pretoria was the last-gasp win scored by the Kings over the Bulls at Loftus.

Sadly, it was one of the last games the Kings were to play in Super Rugby, as they have joined the Cheetahs in the Guinness PRO14 to satisfy the requirements of the reduction to a 15 team competition in 2018.

The Bulls will be there even though they finished a lowly seventh on the combined South African log and won just four games in 15.

A measly 20 log points, eight less than the Kings and also less than the Cheetahs, showed that the Bulls’ noble attempts to reinvent themselves as a more all-embracing attacking team were going nowhere.

The right call was made to bring in former All Black and Lions coach John Mitchell as a director of rugby and, as it has developed, now also the coach.

Mitchell’s influence was immediately apparent during the Currie Cup and while it may be premature to expect them to win a trophy just yet, they can be justifiably optimistic that a three-year build could see them once again become one of the powerhouses in the competition.

The same could probably be said of the South African revolution generally. This year was a start, but it will take time.



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