The Sharks, Stormers and Lions are leading South Africa's Super Rugby charge, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
There’s a suggestion, based on the attack against the Brumbies in Cape Town and the defence against the Jaquares in Buenos Aires, to have an expectation of the Stormers that they’re more a top-four than a top-six team in this year’s competition.
And don’t dismiss the Sharks on the basis of one home defeat – their first of the season. They lost to a team that currently is better. They lost to a team whose attack matches their defence. They lost to the Crusaders because, a week ago, they weren’t good enough to win.
The margin of defeat could have been greater. Heck, it should have been greater but for the resilience in defence of the Sharks. A year ago the Sharks took 50 points against the Crusaders at home. A week ago, through determination and desire to scramble in defence, they lost by just one score.
The huge change in the Sharks from a year ago is the adaptation in mindset that before you can attack, you also have to respect the nuances of defence. The attacking limitations won’t be fixed this season. The best to hope for is improvement, but don’t be unrealistic in expectation.
This season, for the Sharks, is phase one after coach Gary Gold started the cleanout to a younger and more vibrant mix in his playing squad. More skilled players have to be introduced to the squad, but they currently are not there. You play to the strengths of what you have. The Sharks a year ago tried to play to a blueprint that didn’t match the players at the coach’s disposal.
The Stormers have been a pleasant surprise; more specifically coach Robbie Fleck, whose debut Super Rugby season has had an immediate impact.
Fleck’s head coach role had been just the one season with the WP U19s, with his senior coaching role that of assistant coach to Allistair Coetzee.
I know I put too much emphasis on Fleck the player in assessing his potential as coach, because the two appear to be very different. Fleck was a flamboyant player but didn’t always have balance to his game and he certainly didn’t always show the discipline to consistently be a world-class midfielder.
Fleck, the coach, has shown greater maturity and a far greater appreciation for the game’s intricacies. I picked a different scenario to how Fleck’s first month would have gone. Apologies, Mr Fleck.
The Stormers defensively were massive against the Jaguares, whose predictability on attack also made it that much easier for a disciplined and committed Stormers defensive effort.
The Jaguares, like the Pumas at the World Cup, appear to be the people’s favourite in this year’s competition. They are everyone’s second-favourite team. Perhaps it’s the Latin influence or simply the introduction of something new, but the more the Jaguares play the more overhyped I believe them to be.
The Jaguares are attempting to play like New Zealand teams, especially the Crusaders, but the players don’t have the skill level and they certainly don’t have the natural attacking mindset.
They’d be a stronger team if they invested more in the areas of the game that have been their strength and less in wanting to be the All Blacks or everything New Zealand.
They will lose plenty times in this year’s competition.
The match of the weekend is the Lions hosting the Crusaders and there’s no reason why the Lions should feel inferior to a team’s whose glory days were more yesterday than today.
The Crusaders remain a good side, but they’re not the players who won seven titles and they won’t be winning the title this year.
They still play an expressive brand of rugby, which is why it should be a cracker for any neutral. The Lions are easy on the eye and have been for the past few seasons. They play good rugby and their players understand space and when to offload in the tackle as much as they do playing percentages and when to take contact.
The Lions are well coached and have enough quality to make any visit to Ellis Park very uncomfortable.
If this match was in Christchurch I’d favour the Crusaders by five to seven points. It’s the Lions, at home, who should be favourites to win by five to seven points.
The Sharks remain competitive despite an indifferent attack but the two teams who in the first month have shown all-round class have been the Stormers and Lions.
And three South African competitive teams is two more than most would have picked a month ago.
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