The Lions have come the closest South African team to winning the Super Rugby title in recent years. Will it finally be their year in 2018. Photo: Gavin Barker/BackpagePix
In 22 years of Super Rugby, just one South African team has managed to break the fierce Antipodean stranglehold.

Three times the Bulls have won, the last of them eight years ago. The Sharks cracked four finals, losing every one. And the Lions have lost the last two back-to-back.

That’s a pitiful return for a rugby-strong country like South Africa, where success is measured in bright and shiny trophies and wins against New Zealand and Australia constitute the very best kind.

The 2018 edition is a few days away and South African expectations are low. This is what happens when the Springboks go through the wringer, top players ship out and injuries mount.

Even the Lions, the SA go-to team in recent seasons, have an air of mystery around them now that Johan Ackerman has pitched his tent in England.

One thing you must never do is look at pre-season form as a barometer. Coaches like to keep their powder dry, mixing and matching and trying specific plays and combinations. The champion Crusaders were belted the other day, but no-one seriously thinks they’ll be in trouble. The Sharks beat Racing 92, but it was a game designed for testing and tinkering. No-one ought to get too excited.

The real thing only starts next week. The early winners may be determined by the teams that best get their heads around the inevitable law tweaks. There are five changes, none of them fundamentally game-altering, with continuity, player welfare and simplicity at their heart.

Perhaps in our lifetimes World Rugby will settle on a set of laws for longer than a single year. Until then, we must go along with the fiddling.

Yes, change is everywhere. Super Rugby is down to 15 teams - again - and already the tournament has a sleeker, smoother feel. The Kings and Cheetahs are off elsewhere, trying to forge new identities in an unforgiving environment.

Given that the three conference winners, plus the five next best teams, will qualify for the play-offs, the tournament will regain the integrity it lost in the 18-team rigmarole.

Better still is that each team will face 12 of the 14 others, ending the situation like last season when the Lions reached the final without facing the big dogs of New Zealand.

But anomalies remain. The Waratahs and the Reds will log huge airmiles as the only two teams travelling to all five competing countries, and yet the Highlanders will miss out altogether on Japan and Argentina.

A couple of key things define the four-team SA challenge.

For the Sharks, it will be all about winning front-foot ball for perhaps the most vibrant backs in SA rugby. The side tended to lose their way last year, but they’ll be more comfortable with the coach’s methods in his second season. They’ll need someone to flick the switch, though. Might it be Robert du Preez, one of the big off-season buys who has the look of Stephen Larkham about him? Perhaps Makazole Mapimpi, another shrewd buy. He’ll score plenty this season.

The Stormers have a horribly long injury list, with two of their big men - Wilco Louw and Frans Malherbe - out for what looks like a long time. Their depth will be tested as never before.

At the Bulls, John Mitchell has done as expected, wielding the big stick. Rudi Paige and Jacques Potgieter were considered surplus to requirements and he has made the curious decision to appoint two fresh-faced captains. Mitchell is a strong systems man with a relish for the technical stuff, so we may only see emerging buds this season rather than a full flourish.

The Lions have their key men back, chiefly Warren Whiteley, but you must wonder how the off-season earners in Japan, the UK and elsewhere impact on players’ physical wellbeing. It’s all very well to squawk about player welfare, but players themselves ought to be mindful of its importance. The Currie Cup was a bit messy for them, but Swys de Bruin knows what must be done. They ought to be there or thereabouts.

It’s almost time for the great jamboree, a lung-busting 127-match marathon. The Northern hemisphere might look at it sniffily, and it’s not for everyone, but it’s never less than full-blooded and exciting.

Everything that rugby should be.

Sunday Tribune

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