The underperformance of South Africa’s Super Rugby sides this year remains a cause for national concern, writes CRAIG LEWIS in SA Rugby magazine.
Do you remember the good old days? How about when the Bulls and Sharks competed in an enthralling Super Rugby final in 2007? That was the same year the Springboks won the World Cup in unforgettable fashion. What about 2009? That was the year the Bulls thrashed the Chiefs 61-17 in the Super Rugby final, before the Boks went on to beat the British & Irish Lions and win the Tri-Nations title.
Then there was the 2010 Super Rugby final, which saw the Bulls overpower the Stormers in front of a packed Orlando Stadium in Soweto. Those were good times. Unfortunately, it’s also the last occasion a South African side won the Super Rugby title.
Since then, there has been little of substance to celebrate. An expanded Super Rugby format has increasingly rewarded mediocrity through a conference system that aims to guarantee a playoff place for at least one team each from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
Over the past few years, it’s become rather comical to see the conference-leading teams holding down a spot in the upper echelon of the overall standings despite often having fewer log points than teams further down the table.
It’s all made for some farcical knockout matches, and 2018 will be no different. This year – even though the competition has been reduced to 15 teams – as many as eight sides will advance to the playoffs.
As it stands, the Rebels occupy eighth place on the overall standings after winning just seven games from 14. It beggars belief that such a mediocre record could still prove to be enough to see them eventually progress to a knockout clash. Ah, but I digress.
More painful is that the Bulls and Stormers have slipped to 11th and 12th place respectively on the combined log following this past weekend’s disappointing defeats to the Sunwolves and Jaguares, while the Sharks also remain outside of a qualifying position in ninth.
Even the Lions – who served as South Africa’s Super Rugby flag-bearers in 2016 and 2017 – look unlikely to realistically challenge for title honours this season. Over the course of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, the Lions lost a total of seven games from 36 matches. This year, they have already lost seven from 15.
As a rugby nation, we should expect more. In fact, we should demand more – especially when one considers the talent at the country’s disposal. Of course there are mitigating circumstances, such as the ongoing player drain to overseas clubs, but at some point SA Rugby must begin to address the issues at Super Rugby level.
The fact remains that while Rassie Erasmus has understandably acknowledged that the Springboks are his top priority, his simultaneous role as South Africa’s director of rugby cannot be forgotten. It’s a position that requires him to investigate what shortfalls are leading to the continued underperformance of the local Super Rugby franchises.
Is there a problem with the quality of coaching? Are there talented young prospects finding themselves lost in a system where player pools are oversaturated? Are the schools and club systems operating at optimum functionality? Has the Cheetahs and Kings’ introduction to the Pro14 strengthened South African rugby or simply exposed more players to the European market? Are players of all colours being provided with equal opportunities in Super Rugby?
All these questions require answers, especially when one considers that the ability of the Springboks to perform to their maximum potential is largely dependent on talent that is fed through from franchise level.
It’s an indictment that there may only be one South African representative in this year’s Super Rugby playoffs, and that local teams have managed just two wins from 20 overseas matches so far this season.
As a rugby nation, it’s just not good enough.
– This is an edited version of a column that first appeared in the July 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine
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