The Rainbow Cup SA finale between the Bulls and Sharks on Saturday should once again showcase the best of what South African rugby has to offer, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
When the newly-devised Super Rugby Unlocked and revised Currie Cup went through round after round of action towards the end of last year, most onlookers could only be grateful that there was some rugby to watch again following more than six months of inactivity.
Yet, that extraordinary ‘off-season’ also led to considerable rustiness and the quality of competition left a lot to be desired.
At that stage, the national coaches were quietly, but understandably concerned, and announced the implementation of new plans to ensure the speeding up of ball-in-action play throughout the 2021 season.
‘We are certainly not blaming anyone for what happened and we know there were many mitigating factors as we tried to resurrect the local game in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic,’ Rassie Erasmus commented at the start of the year.
‘It just wasn’t a high-performance environment. There was lack of proper training time, certain law directives which increased the penalty count and slowed play while the weather conditions were far from ideal.
‘We have a big year looming and apart from hopefully delivering better rugby matches, we have to prepare our top players for Tests and entry into exciting new competitions in Europe. By creating more action on the field and less “ball out of play”, it will also help to increase the conditioning and fitness of our players.’
There was no quick-fix, but the Preparation Series exposed a number of youngsters to competition and that naturally resulted in some shackles being broken.
But the real wins have come in the Rainbow Cup SA competition, where the physicality and strength-vs-strength nature of closely-fought competition has gone a long way to providing some much-improved national preparation.
And not a lot has separated the sides. The Stormers, for example, have won just two games and lost three, but they have not been involved in a single game that has been decided by more than four points.
The Bulls have lost just the solitary game, but that defeat did surprisingly come against the Lions, who have been no push-overs in this competition.
The Sharks have had one blowout against the Bulls, but they still head into this Saturday’s clash against their Pretoria-base foes with a shot at snatching top spot and a berth in the Rainbow Cup final in Treviso.
You can expect the battle in Durban to be brutal. Lukhanyo Am, Siya Kolisi and Aphelele Fassi are all back for the hosts, while the Bulls boast the likes of Marcell Coetzee, Cornal Hendricks and Marco van Staden with a Springbok point to prove.
Ultimately, there is good reason to believe this Saturday’s clash will effectively stand in stark contrast to the scrappy Currie Cup final between these two sides.
As we saw in the ferocious match-up between the Stormers and Bulls last Friday, the competitiveness and quality of derbies has progressed to be far more in line with what Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have been looking for.
The only issue is that it can lead to casualties. Duane Vermeulen, who rolled his ankle after being caught in a tackle by Springbok counterpart Pieter-Steph du Toit, is now in doubt for the Lions series.
Yet, in a recent interview with SA Rugby magazine before that incident, he highlighted the changes he had picked up in the Rainbow Cup.
‘A few months ago, I watched a few games in the northern hemisphere and it was clear to me that the level over there was so much better. By the second or third round of the Rainbow Cup, however, I felt that South African rugby had turned a corner.
‘You could see how much more the results meant to the individual teams, and to all the players. They were playing for the opportunity to compete in the Rainbow Cup final and for a chance to face the Lions later in the season. That shaped the tactics and lifted the levels of physicality and intensity.’
With all this in mind, it’s extremely unfortunate that the Lions-Stormers clash had to be called off in line with Covid protocols.
However, the battle at Kings Park has all the potential to be the standout contest of this much-improved ‘season’ of local rugby.