South Africa’s inconsistent Vodacom Super Rugby performances in a World Cup year are cause for concern, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Do you remember the good old days? The 2007 Vodacom Super 14 final, for one. As a teenager and a fan, watching from the stands back then, it was the sort of occasion at Kings Park that still stands out as one of the most memorable clashes in South African sport.
Of course, as a Durbanite who had grown up supporting the Sharks, the heartbreaking last-minute loss was a painful experience, but to reflect more objectively more than a decade later, the Vodacom Bulls’ comeback and match-winning try by Bryan Habana remains an undeniably iconic moment.
Later that year, the Springboks lifted the Webb Ellis Cup after a remarkable journey to glory, with Jake White and John Smit’s charges writing their names into Bok history.
On we can go. What about the Bulls’ stunning 61-17 win over the Chiefs in the 2009 Super 14 final, the same year that the Boks claimed a memorable series victory over the British & Irish Lions, and the Tri-Nations title? Then there was the historic Soweto final between the Bulls and Stormers in Soweto a year later, with the Pretoria-based side claiming their third title.
Those were the good old days, but what has happened since then? In another World Cup year, it’s a question that deserves some attention. As we head into the final round of the pool stages, the Jaguares have already sewn up the SA conference title, with the Bulls the best-placed local side despite losing six games, drawing two and winning seven.
The Sharks have again been the picture of inconsistency in 2019, the Stormers similarly hit and miss, while the Lions’ bubble has been well and truly burst as they go through a period of rebuilding. And although the Bulls emerged as somewhat of a surprise package, they have hardly set the competition alight.
One has to look a little deeper. At the Sharks there have been ongoing rumours of discontent behind the scenes, with coach Robert du Preez attracting his fair share of detractors. In all probability, Du Preez’s largely unsuccessful coaching tenure does appear likely to come to an end after this season.
Then we come to the Stormers. Even before the season kicked off, Robbie Fleck stated that it would be his last year in charge of the team. For Fleck it certainly hasn’t been the easiest four years at the helm, ever since having to take on an ambulance job after being expedited into a head coaching role with the departure of Eddie Jones to England.
The Bulls have also had their problems. From Nollis Marais to the short-lived tenure of John Mitchell, they then turned to long-serving Pote Human after Victor Matfield turned down the job. It’s effectively signalled a new start for a union that has also been left reeling after claims of fraudulent dealings by former high-performance manager Xander Janse van Rensburg.
So we come to the Lions. A team that’ve served as South Africa’s perennial pacesetters for the past three years, but have unfortunately had to settle for three runner-up finishes. After the departure of respected coach Johan Ackermann, Swys de Bruin has stepped up to the top job, but injuries, inexperience and some off-field drama has blighted this season.
In a World Cup year, all this doesn’t bode particularly well for the Springboks. There has not been any real semblance of consistency, or a winning habit established at Super Rugby level, while a number of key players have suffered serious injuries.
Leadership, in some key capacities, has been clearly lacking. In his wider role as South Africa’s director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus will surely be aware that his focus needs to shift towards ensuring that a healthier state of well-being is established at South Africa’s Super Rugby franchises once he concludes his immediate task of taking the Boks to this year’s World Cup.
One way or another, South African rugby needs to find a way to return to those good old days.
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