The Stormers showed why they will challenge for the conference title while the Vodacom Bulls and Lions struggled on the opening weekend of the Vodacom Super Rugby tournament, writes JON CARDINELLI.
So much for the World Cup winning Springboks resting on their laurels.
On Saturday at Newlands, the Stormers ‘ magnificent seven delivered performances that highlighted their ambitious intent. Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe, Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Herschel Jantjies and Damian Willemse played with a hunger that belied their status.
Those performances would have caught the eyes of director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and new Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber. All of the players have been told that form will count a great deal toward selection in 2020 and that the World Cup winners can’t allow the fire that was sparked in Japan to die out.
The performance of the Stormers collective was equally eye-catching. Synergy was never a problem at the scrum and maul. The timing and decision-making at the breakdown was first-class and ultimately allowed the hosts to control the tempo of the contest.
On the back of that platform, Herschel Jantjies and Damian Willemse took control via a balanced approach. Both players troubled the Hurricanes defence with ball in hand. And yet, the intercept tries scored by Jantjies and then Willemse at the death were a result of excellent defensive pressure.
It was fantastic to watch. If the Stormers can maintain that standard, they will challenge for top spot in the division. As was witnessed in the early hours of Sunday morning, the Jaguares have the players and the game plan to mount a successive defence of their South African conference title.
It’s not enough to have the right attitude, set of players and strategy. The Super Rugby tournament is a marathon rather than a sprint and the best sides are those that have the depth to cope when key players are struck down by injuries.
Stormers coach John Dobson has confirmed that Kolisi sustained a serious knee injury on Saturday and could be sidelined for a couple of months. Mbonambi and Jaco Coetzee, who also left the field during the match, could both be sidelined for several weeks.
The Stormers leadership will need to adapt in the absence of the Bok skipper. While they managed to do so after Kolisi left the field on Saturday, it must be noted that the Stormers were well on top at that stage of the contest. They will be tested to a greater degree over the next month or so, and it must be said that Kolisi is a special leader who can’t be replaced.
Nevertheless, the Stormers have now earned the right to be spoken about as conference title contenders. The Sharks beat the Bulls in a scrappy game on Friday, and we will only see how much they have improved when they play overseas in the coming weeks.
The Sharks boast their own clutch of World Cup stars and it was great to see those individuals shining at Kings Park. S’bu Nkosi showcased his spectacular finishing skills while Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi worked hard for the cause.
The Bulls have suffered significant personnel losses since last season. The arrival of veterans such as Morné Steyn will help the younger players and ensure that the side remains relatively competitive. Whether they will win enough games to qualify for the playoffs, however, is another story.
The lack of experience in the Lions side was patent in the heavy defeat to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires. It would surprise to see them pushing for a playoff spot this season, given their resources and the flaws in their approach.
What we’ve learned over the last quarter of a century is that the Super Rugby tournament is not won and lost in the first round. Some of the great Crusaders sides, of course, took some time to find their feet before pushing for playoff qualification and then raising the trophy.
That said, there are a few reasons to feel encouraged if you’re a South African supporter. The World Cup winners have made an early statement. One would hope that they keep improving in the lead-up to the Test season and that they aren’t overplayed by the respective franchises.
One would hope that teams like the Stormers and Sharks continue to push the boundaries. While it’s too early to talk about one of these teams lifting the Super Rugby title, there appears to be a better chance of a South African team winning the South African conference than there was in 2019.
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