Saffas trail in Kiwis’ wake

Results confirm that South Africa’s franchises have fallen even further behind their New Zealand counterparts in 2015, writes JON CARDINELLLI.

The winner of the 2015 Vodacom Super Rugby tournament will come from New Zealand. It’s not an especially brave statement to make, considering the Hurricanes are now huge favourites to finish the league stage at the top of the log and host a semi-final, as well as a possible final. It’s an enviable position to be in, as every team that's hosted a final since the tournament expanded to 15 sides has gone on to claim the title.

New Zealand’s strength in this year’s competition is illustrated by the number of Kiwi teams in the top six. The Chiefs and Highlanders currently occupy fourth and fifth position on the overall log, but those positions are no true indicator of their strength and consistency during this year’s competition. Indeed, if sanity was to prevail and we were to judge the teams by the pre-2011 method (ie log points determine log position), then the Hurricanes would be first, the Chiefs second, and the Highlanders third.

Nowadays, the Super Rugby log can be misleading. It’s easy to make the mistake, to glance at the standings and assume that a team from Australia or South Africa is a genuine contender for the title. However, it has to be remembered that the leader from each conference is guaranteed a place in the top three. If form dictated position in 2015, then the best of the Aussies (Waratahs) would sit in fourth place, and the best South African side (Stormers) would be in fifth.

The Waratahs won the title in 2014, marking Australia’s first triumph in the tournament since 2011. This season, however, has been dominated by the top Kiwi teams. New Zealand’s best have set the standard, and when we examine the results in closer detail, it’s disappointing to note just how below that standard South Africa’s teams fall.

The Bulls wrapped up their two-game tour of New Zealand this past Friday, and thus brought an end to all New Zealand-South Africa matches in the league stage. Overall, South Africa’s teams won just six of their 20 matches against Kiwi opposition in 2015. It’s a drop when compared to the 2014 season, which witnessed seven wins as well as two draws.

Before we get into the really depressing stats, let’s acknowledge South Africa’s lone beacon of light. The Lions may not win the title this season, but they are, as the numbers suggest, making progress.

In 2014, they lost three out of four matches against Kiwi opponents. This season, they have won two and lost two. And what makes their away win in Auckland especially significant is that it’s the only victory for a South African Super Rugby franchise on New Zealand soil in 2015.

Reflect on that. As a collective, South Africa’s teams have won one in 10 in New Zealand this season. Last year, the Sharks won both their matches in the Land of the Long White Cloud to boost South Africa’s Super Rugby win ratio to 20%. Unbelievably, this country has done even worse in 2015 than it did in 2014 in terms of beating the Kiwis in their own backyard.

What’s concerning is that New Zealand’s best teams don’t seem to have the same problems when they tour South Africa. They won 50% of their matches in South Africa in 2014, and they’ve maintained that standard in 2015. Of course, that latter figure is brought down by the struggles of the Blues this season. The Hurricanes won both their games in South Africa, while the Chiefs and Highlanders racked up five and six log points respectively on their two-match tours of the Republic.

It’s worth reflecting on these stats and results when assessing the chances of a South African side at the business end of the tournament. And it’s also worth noting that of the three strongest Kiwi teams, teams that will in all likelihood feature in the play-offs, none have lost to South Africa’s chief contenders. One of the Bulls or Stormers will top the South African conference. Neither side has beaten the Hurricanes, Chiefs or Highlanders in 2015.

These are the facts one has to consider when reflecting on the position of South Africa’s best-placed teams. Before we even start to talk about the Stormers struggling to score four tries against the limited Rebels or the Bulls choking in Auckland and then Rotorua, we have to look at what has been done in terms of matches won and log points accumulated.

South Africa’s best are nowhere in relation to the top performing teams from New Zealand. What the results confirm is that four out of five South African teams have regressed in the space of a year. Positive results against local and Aussie opponents may have improved the respective standings of South African teams on the 2015 log, but what is there to brag about if your record against Kiwi opposition is even worse than it was in 2014?

It’s something to bear in mind over the next three rounds. There will be no matches between South African and New Zealand sides, and no doubt local media will hype the top SA sides’ chances in the play-offs. But just remember how those teams have fared against the Kiwis in 2015, especially Down Under. If the Stormers or Bulls travel to New Zealand for a play-off, they’re likely to be put in their place.

Photo: Joel Ford/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli