The Vodacom Bulls showed signs of progress while the once-hyped Sharks were mercilessly exposed in the quarter-final matches staged in Australasia, writes JON CARDINELLI.
It hasn’t been a good season for South Africa’s franchises. No local team won more than 50% of their matches during the conference phase. No side progressed beyond the quarter-final stage, and for the first time since 2015 no South African team will feature in the Vodacom Super Rugby semi-finals.
We need to consider the performances of the four teams in context, though. Two have performed as expected. One has exceeded expectations, while another has proved an unexpected disappointment in several departments.
There’s little doubt that the Lions – who were runners-up in the 2016, 2017 and 2018 tournaments – have regressed. Part of the franchise’s decline is down to the loss of senior players at the end of the 2018 season.
The Stormers have been hampered by financial problems and off-field controversies. Their on-field offerings have been uninspiring, though, and a last-place finish in the South African conference – for the second-straight season – confirms that a tactical and personnel shake-up is overdue.
These teams, as well as the Bulls, were expected to struggle. Who could have predicted that a side that only confirmed its head coach in December last year – and underwent significant personnel changes – would qualify for the playoffs?
The Bulls have done well in that context. The class of 2019 exceeded expectations in terms of results, with two draws in New Zealand and a win in Australia during the conference stage.
They lost home games they really should have won, though, and suffered severe beatings at the hands of the Chiefs and Crusaders. That said, they still managed to finish the regular season at the top of the South African pile and were second only to the Jaguares in the South African conference.
What’s more, the Pote Human-coached, Handré Pollard-led side became the first Bulls team to qualify for the playoffs since 2013. Despite the extensive travel demands leading up to the quarter-final in Wellington, the Bulls dug deep to push the more fancied Hurricanes close.
Indeed, they may have scored one of the biggest upsets in Super Rugby history if one or two decisions had gone their way in the dying stages. They may have ended South Africa’s losing streak in New Zealand-based playoffs.
The Bulls should be applauded. Where they go to from here, with so many top players leaving the franchise ahead of the 2020 season, is a discussion for another day.
The Sharks have been South Africa’s biggest disappointment. The Bok-laden team promised so much in the early stages of the tournament. They showed that they have the kicking and defensive game to compete against the best teams – as seen by their draw with the Crusaders in Christchurch.
However, as seen by the performances towards the back end of the tournament, and especially by the blowout in Canberra on Saturday, Rob du Preez’s side has wanted for cohesion as much as composure. And whether he likes it or not, Du Preez must accept responsibility for what’s been an abject failure of a campaign.
We should expect to see a number of changes in terms of South African coaching personnel over the next six months. It’s been confirmed that John Dobson will succeed Robbie Fleck as Stormers coach, and that Rassie Erasmus will hand the Bok baton on after the World Cup.
One would hope that the Bulls bolster their coaching staff with someone who can boost their defence. The Lions could also benefit from the inclusion of a coaching heavyweight or two.
As for the Sharks, a change at the top is non-negotiable. Du Preez’s selection policies have proved counterproductive and divisive. They will not progress until a replacement is found or until the shortcomings in their game are addressed.
Photo: Matt King/Getty Images