Injuries, suspensions, and Springbok resting agreements will continue to hurt South African teams at a crucial juncture of Vodacom Super Rugby. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Unless South Africa's traditional powerhouses turn things around, only one team from this country will advance to the Super Rugby play-offs. The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers have produced some inconsistent performances over the past eight rounds, and that has led to an inconsistent run of results. All three sides are now under pressure to respond, and the next couple of weeks will be especially important to their play-off ambitions.
Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold told SARugbymag.co.za that his team needs to show more character when they play the Lions this Saturday. While a more determined display will improve the Sharks' chances of victory against the Lions, the Bulls and subsequently their opponents on a four-game tour of Australasia, it's significant to note they will be without a host of Test players for a lengthy and unfortunately campaign-defining period.
Flyhalf Pat Lambie (neck injury) recently joined the long-term injury list, and is unlikely to be back until the Sharks return from Australasia. The same applies to Jean Deysel, who copped a deserved ban for driving a knee into the head of a Crusaders player. The Sharks flanker won't be available for the next seven weeks.
Bismarck du Plessis and Frans Steyn are expected to play some part on that tour of Australasia, once their respective sentences have been served. But until then, the Sharks will need to make do without Lambie, Deysel, Du Plessis and Steyn.
Add the likes of Willem Alberts and Pieter-Steph du Toit to that list, and you begin to understand the difficulty of their position. They need to respond after a humiliating 52-10 defeat to the Crusaders, and they need to get back to winning ways before their Australasian tour. They need to do all this without a host of Boks and leaders. It could be seen as a great opportunity for the Sharks' second- and third-choice players. But realistically, one would expect the Durban side to struggle over the next few weeks.
The Bulls just aren't the same team without Victor Matfield at No 5 and Handré Pollard at No 10. While there's a strong chance Pollard will resume the flyhalf duties this Saturday, Matfield is battling with a knee injury and has been ruled out for three weeks. The last thing the Bulls need at this point is to lose a leader and player of Matfield's experience and quality.
Saru has asked South Africa's Super Rugby teams to rest contracted Boks, and for the most part, the franchises have obliged. One player who hasn't had a break as yet is hooker Adriaan Strauss. The Bok front ranker has played seven consecutive games for the Bulls. Coach Frans Ludeke will need to rest Strauss at some point in the near future, and unfortunately this could coincide with Matfield's spell on the sidelines. The Bulls' chances of bouncing back are compromised if two influential Boks are not available.
The Stormers recently took the decision to send Bok No 8 Duane Vermeulen back to Cape Town for a two-week rest. It's a decision that will please Saru and Bok coach Heyneke Meyer, as Vermeulen will have a key role to play at the World Cup later this year.
Whether it makes much sense in the context of the Stormers' campaign is debatable. The Stormers had a bye in round six, and Vermeulen was rested in round seven as per the agreement with Saru. Did he really travel to Australasia just to play one game, against the Hurricanes in round eight?
The Stormers have already lost three games in succession, and two out of two on tour. With Vermeulen unavailable, they will struggle to win in Sydney, and possibly even in Perth.
Vermeulen's replacement, Nizaam Carr, earned two Test caps last November, but has never displayed the necessary grunt and stopping power of an international No 8. The sooner he reverts back to No 6, a position in which he excelled for the Stormers in 2014, the better.
The Stormers will need to manage centre Damian de Allende, and props Vincent Koch and Steven Kitshoff. All three have started seven games in succession. The plucky Lions are also entering the danger zone with regards to fatigue-related injury. The match against the Sharks will be their ninth in as many weeks.
The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers will be looking to bounce back in the coming weeks, and to succeed in spite of some significant losses in personnel. The Lions will look to maintain their current run, but they too must be wary of their player management. If they lose captain Warren Whiteley for an extended period, or even consistent performers like Elton Jantjies, Warwick Tecklenburg and Lionel Mapoe, then they may slip down the Super Rugby ladder.
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