With seven pool rounds remaining in this Vodacom Super Rugby season, MARIETTE ADAMS and DYLAN JACK debate which team will finish first in the SA conference.
Jack says Stormers
Call this a defence of the indefensible, or just sheer madness, but there is a nagging feeling that if the Stormers can pick up a result in Buenos Aires this Saturday, they could be favourites to top the conference.
Robbie Fleck’s side, much like the other South African teams, have lacked a certain consistency that would have allowed them to take advantage of their rivals’ slip-ups.
However, they undeniably have the advantage when it comes to the fixtures list. Following the Jaguares match, they play four games at home, with their only remaining away game against the misfiring Lions.
They tend to make the contest a proper arm-wrestle at home. Very little is given away by the Stormers at Newlands, where they have lost just once this season.
Even if the Stormers drop a home game against the mighty Crusaders, there are still a minimum of 16 points on offer, with a bonus-point victory a must against the Sunwolves.
Meanwhile, the Vodacom Bulls, who suffered a massive blow by losing Jesse Kriel for the next six to eight weeks, still have a four-week tour to come before facing a Lions team who could have nothing to lose in their final round-robin fixture.
The Stormers’ biggest threat will come from the Sharks and Jaguares. They will be holding thumbs that the Sharks do not pick up anything more from their overseas tour after the Durban-based side dispatched the Waratahs in Sydney.
The Jaguares also face four weeks away from home, and can be expected to drop points against the Highlanders and Hurricanes, while the Waratahs and Reds are certainly not easy games in Australia.
Trying to predict the SA Conference this year is equivalent to playing a slot machine all day.
Much will rest on how the Stormers perform this Saturday, and how they deal with defeat if it does happen. But with Dillyn Leyds finding the form that made him a Springbok and Jaco Coetzee back to full fitness, the Stormers boast a team who are able to do the business at home.
Essentially this could be the result if all goes to plan. However, as this year has shown, anything can happen…
Adams says Jaguares
With only four points separating the top-placed Sharks and bottom-ranked Lions, and every other team in between, this is a most tightly-contested conference. Over in New Zealand, the Crusaders are a whopping 22 points clear of the struggling Chiefs, while the Rebels are 13 ahead of the lowly Sunwolves in the Australian conference.
With that in mind, exactly who is primed to emerge as South African conference victors? Realistically, all five sides are in a position to claim top honours, but some have more challenging run-ins towards the end of the season than others.
The Stormers will play four of their remaining six games at Newlands, but three of those are against the Crusaders, Highlanders and Sharks respectively. The Bulls have a Test-laden squad capable of pulling off a couple of upsets, but still have to go on their Australasian tour, which has proven to be the undoing of many a local side, while home games against the Crusaders and Lions also lie in wait.
The Sharks have, arguably, the toughest list of fixtures to get through. They still have to play three Kiwi sides (the Crusaders, Chiefs and Hurricanes), two derbies against the Stormers and Lions respectively, and a crucial away match against the Jaguares.
The Lions may have been South Africa’s premier team over the past three seasons, but they are languishing at the foot of the log and are struggling for relevancy this year. Their box office days are seemingly over.
Which brings us to the Jaguares, a Super Rugby franchise that essentially doubles up as Argentina’s Test side, and plays like it too. Say what you will about the Jaguares, but after the New Zealand teams, they are – this season at least – by some estimates the most consistent side in terms of translating top performances into positive results.
Another area where the South Americans dwarf their South African counterparts is squad depth, meticulous player rotation and management, and acute succession planning.
While a portion of the our local teams’ struggles could – rightly – be attributed to the loss of key players at crucial junctions throughout the campaign, coaches should own up and admit certain (continued) team selections were off the mark, as well as the fact that some back-up players simply haven’t been good enough.
The Jaguares, on the other hand, have had no such issues. They’ve had their share of injury setbacks, but coach Gonzalo Quesada has had the advantage of bringing in players of equal quality. This much is evident from their results in recent weeks.
Capped internationals Javier Díaz (prop), Joaquín Tuculet (fullback), Ramiro Moyano (wing), Tomás Cubelli (scrumhalf), Jeronimo de la Fuente (centre and captain), Juan Manuel Leguizamón (loose forward), Agustín Creevy (hooker), Matías Orlando (centre), Emiliano Boffelli (utility back), Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro (prop), Tomás Lavanini (utility forward) and Marcos Kremer (utility forward) have all missed large chunks of the current campaign due to injuries. Wing Bautista Delguy and scrumhalf Gonzalo Bertranou have been ruled out for the remainder of the season.
And yet these Jaguares have oozed class and big- match temperament, qualities sorely lacking on the home front. Case in point being when debutant Domingo Miotti came on for the experienced Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias while the Jaguares were trailing the Bulls 20-10 at at Loftus. The young flyhalf scored two tries and slotted a crucial conversion to turn the result on its head.
As it stands, I have the Jaguares to leapfrog the South African contenders, based on the fact that they have struck a purple patch, while the Bulls, Stormers, Lions and Sharks have lacked consistency. Knowing what is at stake, I don’t think we’ll see the high-flying Jaguares’ confidence dipping any time soon.
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