The Lions, seen here celebrating a try, currently top the standings in the South African conference. Photo: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

CAPE TOWN - The Super Rugby season is just past the halfway mark. So how have the South African teams fared? Rugby writers Jacques van der Westhuyzen, Vata Ngobeni, Darryn Pollock and Wynona Louw give their assessments.

Lions - Jacques van der Westhuyzen

Highs

The Lions might have played a game or two more than their nearest challengers but they’re still out in front on the log, a position they occupied for much of last season, and the one before. And, the Lions are still scoring plenty of tries, just as before; justifying the appointment of Johan Ackermann’s assistant Swys de Bruin as the new team head coach. Also, the elevation of junior coaches like Neil de Bruin, Joey Mongalo and Philip Lemmer to the senior side has worked a treat. They’ve also beaten the Sharks, Bulls and Stormers already to remain the best of the local bunch.

READ MORE: Lions develop brotherhood on gruelling Super Rugby tour

Lows

For the third year running the Lions travelled to Buenos Aires and lost to the Jaguares; this time with a stronger team than in 2016 and 2017. If they’ve got a bogey team in the competition it’s the South Americans on home turf, and one can only hope it doesn’t come back to bite them. The loss to the Blues, at Ellis Park, was also hugely disappointing, while their stuttering win against the Sunwolves could very easily have been the shock defeat of the competition. And then, the continued absence through injury of captain Warren Whiteley must be a concern for the team and the fans.

Exciting rookie

He may be sidelined at the moment but no one in local rugby has caught the attention quite like wing Aphiwe Dyantyi. The man once considered too small for rugby was in blistering form early in the competition, scoring a heap of tries, and it is hoped he can return to the field sooner rather than later.

Dyantyi in action against the Sunwolves. Photo: Gavin Barker/BackpagePix
Dyantyi in action against the Sunwolves. Photo: Gavin Barker/BackpagePix

Stand-out veteran

At 27 he’s hardly a veteran, but Elton Jantjies has been playing senior rugby for eight years now, so he’s certainly a seasoned campaigner. There may be other No 10s catching the eye, but the Lions man has been cool and calm this year, he’s done everything right and has been a real general - quality all-round.

Bulls - Vata Ngobeni

Highs

It has been refreshing to see that what the coaches and players talk about, they are able to implement on the field of play. The Bulls have long been talking about playing a different, ball-in-hand style of rugby and they have finally got it right under John Mitchell. Their start to the competition with a home win against the Hurricanes set the tone for how they want to play the game this season. After four consecutive losses, including all three matches on tour, the Bulls are finally getting just reward for their performances with three successive wins against the Stormers, Sharks and Rebels.

Lows

There hasn’t been much on the low side for the Bulls in a year where there is so much optimism. However, some time probably at the business end of the competition, the Bulls will look back at their inability to win a single game on tour as the reason why they didn’t finish higher on the overall standings. As much as they had to go through the growing pains in order to learn the lessons they have, it didn’t have to come at the cost of those valuable points and placing themselves with a stronger chance at winning the championship.

Exciting rookie

The likes of utility back Divan Rossouw, loose forwards Hendre Stassen and Marco van Staden have impressed, but it has been the emergence of 19-year-old scrumhalf Embrose Papier that has excited the Loftus faithful. Papier has shown that he can follow in the footsteps of Bulls and Springbok greats, the late Joost van der Westhuizen and Fourie du Preez.

Papier being celebrates after scoring against the Chiefs. Photo: Bruce Lim / www.photosport.nz
Papier celebrates with Rosouw after scoring against the Chiefs. Photo: Bruce Lim / www.photosport.nz

Stand-out veteran

Former Springbok captain Adriaan Strauss has not only trimmed down around his waistline but he has put in performances worthy of his starting place in the Bulls side and deserving of his record as the most capped South African in Super Rugby. Strauss marked his 149th appearance with a hat-trick of tries against the Stormers.

READ MORE: Resurgent Strauss will make Springbok comeback on one condition

Stormers - Wynona Louw

Highs

In between all the troubles, there’s been some nice attacking play from the Stormers. The play in the build-up to Raymond Rhule’s try against the Sharks was one of those good-looking spells. And how about that performance against the Blues after their tour to Australasia? It was stunning... the soft hands, the silky offloads, the clever kicks, the support play. But it shouldn’t be a game you have to single out, there needs to be more of that. The Stormers’ scrum has also been a positive, how can it not be with their props?

Lows

There have been a couple for Robbie Fleck’s team. They haven’t won any of their six games on the road, and they have only two chances left - against the Sunwolves and Jaguares - to save face away from Newlands. Then there’s also the injuries - including long-term blows to Eben Etzebeth, JD Schickerling and Bongi Mbonambi - and that hasn’t done anything to help their chances this season. On the field there have also been shortcomings, and things like missed opportunities, poor kick retrieves, predictable attack and some poor performances up front have all been failings.

READ MORE: Stormers 'still fighting', banking on continuity to turn things around

Exciting rookie

Damian Willemse has offered a lot of excitement on attack, and he’s also shown his mettle in the grittier parts of the game. He’s been an absolute star on defence, and his work-rate is massive. He’s not the end product yet, of course, and it’ll be great to watch him as he continues to grow.

Willemse steps into a gap during a match against the Reds at Newlands. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix
Willemse steps into a gap during a match against the Reds at Newlands. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

Stand-out veteran

Bok lock Pieter-Steph du Toit has been one of the Stormers’ more consistent performers this season. He’s made big carries and produced powerful runs, and without the ball he has been no less impressive. Damian de Allende also deserves a mention

Sharks - Darryn Pollock

Highs

New Zealand. Plain and simply. after the disaster that was Australia, no one gave the Sharks any hopes, but, when they hit Auckland and Napier, they piled on over 100 points against the Kiwis. The Blues game was memorable in the fact that the Sharks kept on attacking, even if defence became a little bit optional. It gave them a chance to show their character at times too. Napier may have been a loss, and a controversial one at that, but the Sharks rightly deserved the praise they got for going toe-to-toe with such a top side.

READ MORE: Inconsistent Sharks 'can’t go backwards' after Stormers win

Lows

Australia. Equally plain, and equally simply. The Sharks were dour against two Australian teams that should not have caused them much trouble at all. They looked timid and lost when taking on the Brumbies, unsure of how to get their hands on the ball and attack. Against the Rebels they were totally outplayed as the Melbourne side ripped holes in their defence for fun, putting on a record score.

Exciting rookie

Lukhanyo Am - While not technically a rookie, this is only Am’s second Super Rugby season for the Sharks after debuting for the Kings on loan in 2016. The centre however has gone from strength to strength, showcasing his attacking intelligence and dependability in defence. Surely one that will add to his Bok cap this year.

Am runs at the Rebels defence during a Super Rugby match in Melbourne. Photo: EPA/TRACEY NEARMY

Stand-out veteran

Beast Mtawarira - When it comes to veterans, there are none more experienced than Mtawarira, who now holds the club cap record in Durban. But more so, the Bok veteran is playing some of the best rugby of his life. Still destructive in the scrums, but he has found his love of ball-carrying and tackling again.

Cape Argus

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