The Republic of South Africa muddles through the junk rated rand, state capture, Zexit, drought and water restrictions. But the rugby rolls on.
For 2018 the South African conference is reduced to four local franchises and one transnational:
- Stormers: Western Province – Cape Town, located in the bottom left corner of South Africa.
- Bulls: Gauteng – Johannesburg and Tshwane, roughly in middle/north of South Africa at altitude on the Hiveldt.
- Lions: only an hour‘s drive from the Bulls, also in Johannesburg/Hiveldt
- Sharks: KwaZulu-Natal – Durban, on the coast in the bottom right corner
- Jaguares: Buenos Aires -Argentina
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They’ve been twice through to the final recently, is it third time lucky for the Lions? There has been a coaching transition from Ackermann to the former assistant Swys de Bruin. A challenge that is reported to be travelling smoothly.
The Golden Lions Currie Cup performance was a mundane third. Building internal depth was one positive. This is fundamentally important to the Lions as they start 2018 with a squad that is a little rocky with injury and returning players from overseas and 7s. They need to be rested, conditioned, and repatriated into the squad. The talk from Ellis Park stadium is optimistic.
Big name losses to the Lions squad are limited to Ruan Ackermann and Faf de Klerk. There are also key injuries – Kriel, Skosan, Combrink.
The early season is likely to feature young blood. Fortunately, they have a kindly draw with four home games in the first six rounds. The repatriation players will be hitting their straps as the overseas tours are underway.
Prediction: It could actually work – Lions to top the South African conference.
Head Coach du Preez spoke dismissively during the Currie Cup, saying that the South African preoccupation with attacking rugby (to match the Kiwis) was over-rated. “We just want winning rugby.” Win they did – finishing a clear 10 points ahead of the competition on the log. Then their percentage game failed in the final.
For Super Rugby, the coaching team has shifted strategy and has focussed on ball in hand and looking for a snappy response when the game shifts from D to attack. This mindset is shown in the choice of assistants – the attack-oriented former Springbok assistant coach, Dick Muir; along with former Springbok flyhalf, Braam van Straaten.
Head Quarters is stable. The core of the player group has been very stable – they’ve been growing together for a couple of years. Add a couple of interesting additions and this team looks prepared to consolidate with improvement in 2018.
The pack has shown itself to be capable of mixing it up with the best in South Africa. There is some suggestion of lack of depth in the back ups to the tight five, but generally, the squad oozes potential talent and depth across the park.
Fly-half is possibly underdone – du Preez (senior) has brought in du Preez (junior). Junior did very well in the Currie Cup.
Prediction: The Sharks are a dark horse. It’s not their year though – second in the conference and into the finals.
The Stormers still seethe at not landing Eddie Jones. “Stand in” Robbie Fleck has been doing an admirable job as Head Coach. This hasn’t stopped the Stormers reputation for being a successful franchise that fails in finals footy.
Dobson, coach of the related Western Province team has been seen to do an excellent job – winning the 2017 Currie Cup. Some see him as the future.
The appearances are of a tight-knit crew building through the preseason. Squad development has continued leaving us with expectations of a truly excellent pack, but doubtful halves, dodgy centres, fast but light wings and options at the back that are more about making the best of things rather than having strength in depth.
Fly-half is an issue. Whitehead has been loaned from the Griquas (highest points scorer in the Currie Cup). Belief, however, lies with the promising 19 year old, Damian Willemse.
It sounds quite promising until we consider the HQ blues. There are claims of corruption and unethical behaviour. Lawyers at six paces. Doubtful finances – the plan seems based on going into the manufacture of their own apparel, obviously a rugby club administration strength!
Prediction: Third in the conference for the Stormers – unlikely to make the finals.
Another African franchise with backroom strife – the BBC (Blue Bulls Company P/L) find themselves with financial jitters – this time leading to staff retrenchments and a labour dispute. This has not, however, stopped the Bulls finding the cash for the new head coach – the former All Black coach, John Mitchell.
Mitchel has gained experience in South Africa, though he did leave the Lions with questions over player management. He says he has learned.
Mitchell hit the deep end working as assistant coach for the Blue Bulls in the Currie Cup and used the experience to inform his 2018 plan. Like most of the South African teams, the Bulls need to mesh their European returns into the squad – though they have an extra week (Round 1 bye) to do this.
The squad looks settled and impressive in most departments. Commentators suggest that the front row will need to prove their scrummaging – though they looked good in a trial against the Jaguares. The upside is that the props are mobile around the field.
The Bok halfback Rudy Paige was to return from injury around February but has been dropped unexpectedly by Mitchell. The new halves lack experience.
The rest of the squad look good with plenty of competition for spots across the park. It is worth noting that in a year where many African franchises have challenges at fly-half, Pollard has been supported with the returning Marnitz Boshof.
Prediction: It is a building year for the Bulls. Fourth in the conference.
Jaguares continue to need to manage the off season with a view that the squad is over played – essentially doubling up between Super Rugby and the Puma internationals. The disadvantage is offset in the African conference as most African based franchises have problems repatriating players from Europe.
Another offset is travel – not because it is reduced, but because the rest of their conference has increased travel in the “Super 15” structure as well.
Mario Ledesma has six years’ experience supporting Michael Cheika including at Montpelier, Waratahs and the Wallabies. He was released last season to take the main job in Buenos Aires. It is a tough call with plenty of work to do. The squad remains quite stable with only the return of Brumby Thomas Cubelli as a notable. Squad discussion is around “professionalism” which is odd given they have been playing professionally since 2015.
Generally, the Jaguares play rugby like they deserve to be in Super Rugby, but have failed to step up in the win/loss ratio. Some discipline would not hurt them.
Prediction: The Jaguares desperately need to step up to remove questions around their legitimacy in Super Rugby. This is not the year though and they will struggle to do better than last in the African Conference.
ROUND 1 PREDICTIONS:
Stormers to beat the Jaguares in a tight finish – 9 points.
Lions to beat Sharks at altitude – 5 points