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SA’s Super Rugby teams are in crisis

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iol spt may3 Sharks-Cheetahs

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South Africa is experiencing a dire Super Rugby season, with only the Sharks looking like a side that will keep the flag flying. Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images

Should South African fans be worried about the performance of our Super Rugby teams? Are we facing a crisis?

These are some of the questions rugby fans are asking more and more often these days.

South Africa is experiencing a dire season, with only the Sharks looking like a side that will keep the flag flying in the weeks and months ahead.

For the rest – the Bulls, Cheetahs, Lions and Stormers – it is already a year to forget, and we’ve just passed the halfway point of the competition.

Bar the generally strong showing by Jake White’s men up to now – they were the first SA team to win overseas this year when they beat the Rebels in Melbourne yesterday – the other teams have struggled to win and find themselves in the bottom half of the points table.

Between them, the Bulls, Cheetahs, Lions and Stormers have won a total of 11 games out of 38 – some of them against each other, it must be said – while the Sharks have won eight, putting them atop the points table. It is an alarming statistic, so what is wrong with our Super Rugby?

Firstly, there appears to be general consensus that the long injury list at some of the franchises is the main reason for the stuttering performances.

Every SA team have, or have had, key men sidelined.

The Stormers, for example, have had the likes of Schalk Burger, Eben Etzebeth, Rynard Elstadt, Juan de Jongh and Gio Aplon missing at some stage of this season.

The Sharks are minus key men Pat Lambie and Pieter-Steph du Toit; the Bulls have lost Pierre Spies, Dewald Potgieter and Deon Stegman; the Lions have had to do without Alwyn Hollenbach, Andries Coetzee and Franco van der Merwe; and the Cheetahs have missed Johan Goosen, Coenie Oosthuizen, Lappies Labuschagne and Heinrich Brüssow.

Stormers boss Allister Coetzee is adamant the injuries have played a key role in his team’s poor showing.

“Your depth is really tested when injuries hit. Some of the youngsters coming through haven’t even played Currie Cup rugby,” he said last week.

“Super Rugby is a helluva tough competition to be learning in.”

The high injury toll means no consistency in selection, but also, as Coetzee points out, it creates pressure for the youngsters coming through. That brings us to the quality of the depth in local rugby, and more so when one factors in how many senior, experienced men have left to play abroad.

The exodus of high-profile players from the Bulls – among them Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Morné Steyn, Fourie du Preez, Juandré Kruger and Zane Kirchner in the last few years – has hit the Pretoria-based team extremely hard.

The Stormers have also suffered in this department, and to a lesser extent the Cheetahs and Sharks, while the Lions lost the majority of their players around 2009 and 2010 and haven’t recovered.

They simply don’t have the quality.

“When so many senior guys leave it hits a team big time,” said departing Lions lock Franco van der Merwe this week.

“It will always take a few years for those unions to build a strong core again.”

But there are other issues that have been put forward for the disappointing showing this year.

Former Springbok boss Nick Mallett has lamented the lack of basic ball skills in the SA game, while former Bok centre and Saracens coach Brendan Venter, in his SuperSport.com column, has questioned the decision-making of the local players and also the eagerness to kick the ball rather than counter-attack with ball in hand.

Bar the Cheetahs, who’ve scored plenty of tries this year, none of the other local sides look to play a genuinely attack-minded game. But then, the Cheetahs have forgotten about defence this year – something the other outfits, perhaps, spend too much time on.

There is also the not-so-small matter that SA rugby currently lacks world class scrumhalves – men who can dictate the flow of a game – as well as No10s.

Yesterday, former All Black coach John Mitchell said that not since Carlos Spencer retired have the Blues been the same team, mainly because they haven’t found the right man to play flyhalf.

He could just as well have been talking about the SA teams this year, with no scrumhalf or flyhalf really taking charge of his position.

But if the Super Rugby teams are struggling, there is still hope that the Boks will kick on this year and build on their good 2013 showing.

“The Boks only lost twice last year and I believe they’re in a very good place going into this season,” said Van der Merwe.

“I like to think that by next year’s World Cup we would have caught up with the All Blacks and, perhaps, New Zealand have again peaked too soon.” - Saturday Star


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