2018 Super Rugby Preview: South African Conference
They kicked off at the weekend with opening wins for the Lions and Stormers in what was a South African conference-only start to the 2018 Super Rugby season. But with two sides – the Cheetahs and Southern Kings – cut from the equation and now plying their trade in Europe, what have the four remaining Republic franchises and the Argentina-based Jaguares been up to in the off-season?
Who’s in, who’s out, who’s in charge and who’s going to make the finals? Behind the Ruck puts all sensibility aside to try and separate the wheat from the chaff, and throw some names up in the air that may just be worth keeping an eye on. Teams are reviewed in their finishing order from 2017.
It was a case of vaulting every hurdle with aplomb before falling at the very last for the Johannesburg-based side in 2017. Having reached their first ever final in 2016, going down to the Hurricanes in Wellington, they went one step further a year later, losing just once in the regular season to finish as Minor Premiers and earning the right to host the competition decider at Ellis Park. 62,000 turned out to witness history, but despite a gallant second-half fightback, the Crusaders were too good on the day, running out 25-17 winners to lift their eighth title.
Arguably the most aesthetically pleasing side to watch on their day – alongside the Hurricanes – the Lions topped the charts for run metres, line breaks and tackle busts last time out, but had a stable scrum, a potent driving maul, and the second best lineout in the comp to lay the platform for everyone else to run riot.
The key to their chances of making it third time lucky in 2018 is maintaining the continuity built under coach Johan Ackermann, who headed to Gloucester in the English Premiership in the off season. His assistant Swys de Bruin steps up to assume control, and with the majority of the playing roster returning (the loss of Ackermann’s son Ruan to his Dad’s new venture will be keenly felt in the backrow), they shouldn’t be far away yet again. Their fortunes should reveal just how influential their ex-head coach was to the whole program.
NOTABLE IN’S: Jacobie Adriaanse (Bulls), Aphiwe Dyantyi (Golden Lions), Rhyno Herbst (Golden Lions)
NOTABLE OUT’S: Ruann Ackermann (Gloucester, UK), Faf de Klerk (Sale, UK), Akker van der Merwe (Sharks), Jaco van der Walt (Edinburgh, UK)
KEY PERFORMERS: Malcolm Marx was a revelation last season, earning the starting hooking role for the Springboks with his combination of pace, power and aggression; Kwagga Smith took to Super Rugby like a duck to water after his time revelling in the Sevens World Series for the BlitzBokke, and should only get better with more time in the longer format of the game; Franco Mostert is another to have cemented a role in the national jersey after a string of combative, abrasive and workmanlike performances for the Lions, and at 27-years-old, still has his best years ahead of him.
ONES TO WATCH OUT FOR: I’ll be honest and say I don’t know that much about him, but new signing Aphiwe Dyantyi earned some rave reviews for his performances in the Varsity Cup last year, and the utility back is tipped by many greater judges of South African rugby than myself to be a breakout star in his debut season.
DRAW: Seven of their first eight matches are all in South Africa – six at Ellis Park – giving them the chance to rack up plenty of points before they go on the road after their first bye. However, unlike last year’s kiwi-free run to the finals, they will meet every New Zealand side along the way except the Chiefs.
Like the Lions, the Stormers are another team that have been knocking on the door for a few years now, but refusing to walk through it when it is left open. Having consistently navigated the regular season well enough to earn a place in the knockout stages of Super Rugby, they have just one win from nine finals matches to show for their efforts, and a lone appearance in the final itself in 2010, where they lost to arch-rivals the Bulls. They started with a bang in 2017, winning their first six matches on the way to topping their conference, before bowing out for the second year in a row to the Chiefs in front of a passionate, vocal but ultimately frustrated Newlands crowd.
Defence used to be the be-all and end-all for the Stormers a few years ago, when recently departed Springbok coach Allister Coetzee was in charge. But Robbie Fleck’s ascension to the throne has seen a shift of focus, borne out by the facts when you consider they scored the 4th highest number of points in last year’s competition, while having the 11th most porous defence. What they were good at was building multiple phases, many of which came via pick and drives near the line – they topped the charts on that count – and their ability to steal lineout ball with regularity was another plus point.
What they will no doubt be focusing on this year is maintaining that threat in the opposition red zone – the arrivals of Raymond Rhule and Sergeal Petersen should certainly facilitate that, although they passed the exiting Cheslin Kolbe and Juan de Jongh on the way in – whilst tightening up at the other end. And if they do get to the pointy end of the season again, learning how to see out the big games. Counting against them is a tricky schedule, and the incalculable long-term absence of talisman Eben Etzebeth, who is rumoured to be out of action for a hefty chunk of the year.
NOTABLE IN’S: Johannes Engelbrecht (Shuttles), Joshua Stander (Bulls), Neetling Fouche (Bulls), Sergeal Petersen (Cheetahs), Raymond Rhule (Cheetahs), George Whitehead (Griquas)
NOTABLE OUT’S: Bjorn Basson (Oyonnax), Kurt Coleman (Kings), Juan de Jongh (Wasps), Robert du Preez (Sharks), Rynhardt Elstadt (Toulouse), Huw Jones (Glasgow), Oliver Kebble (Glasgow), Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse)
KEY PERFORMERS: The return of damaging Springbok prop Steven Kitshoff to the Stormers fold last season after a stint in France, came too late for his eligibility for the finals series. Expect him to want to make up for that this year; Siya Kolisi revelled in his captaincy role in 2017, leading from the front with his ball carries, tackle count and metres around the park, and will be a fulcrum of the team’s breakdown; Former Perth Spirit utility back Dillyn Leyds has gone from strength-to-strength since returning to his native land, popping up with crucial plays time and again and having that rare ability to create something out of nothing
ONES TO WATCH OUT FOR: They’re not exactly unheralded, but Rhule and Petersen have shown at lesser teams that they have what it takes, and should go up another level now they are surrounded by better players week-in, week-out; Nizaam Carr made the most individual tackles in the 2017 competition, and will have benefited from a successful half-season stint with Wasps in the English Premiership.
DRAW: They are already off and running with a hard-fought victory over the visiting Jaguares last weekend under their belts, but a tricky road trip to Sydney, Christchurch and Dunedin before they’ve settled into their season is next on the agenda, and could leave them behind the eight-ball when they return to the Republic. They also have to trek to Tokyo and Buenos Aires later in the piece. In mitigation, they get to host the Reds, Blues and Rebels, and can’t meet the Hurricanes or Brumbies before the finals.
The Sharks flattered to deceive yet again in 2017, with a handful of poor results – losses to the Kings, Reds and Bulls – cruelling the good work they had achieved in downing the Stormers in Durban, and both the Brumbies and Jaguares on their travels. But having snuck into the play-offs in 8th spot, they almost caused the upset of the finals series when they led the much-vaunted Lions in Johannesburg, only for a long range penalty from Ruan Combrinck after the siren to get the hosts home 23-21.
Statistically, points were a problem. Only the Western Force made less line breaks; they were equal worst in the comp with the Bulls and Cheetahs in their ability to put seven-plus phases together; and the fact that they ended with the 11th best attack is perhaps no coincidence. Conversely, their scrum and lineout numbers stacked up well against the leading sides, and if they could have turned around the disappointing draw at home with the Rebels and the three games they lost by five points or less, into at least a couple of wins, their lot going into the finals may have increased significantly.
However, if’s, but’s and maybe’s don’t win titles, and head coach Robert du Preez – entering his second season at the helm – has looked to address those shortcomings with an influx of attacking weapons, including eldest son Robert Junior from the Stormers, a hugely promising flyhalf/fullback that should open a few gaps for those outside him off the back of his impressive Currie Cup form for Western Province. Add in his younger twins Jean-Luc and Daniel, who have already been pulling up trees for both the Sharks and the Springboks, and the collective du Preez family will have a pretty large say in whether their side can go anywhere near to claiming that elusive Super Rugby trophy.
NOTABLE IN’S: Robert du Preez (Stormers), Ross Geldenhuys (Kings), Gideon Koegelenberg (Zebre, Italy), Makazole Mapimpi (Cheetahs), Tyler Paul (Kings), Louis Schreuder (Kings), Akker van der Merwe (Lions), Cameron Wright (Montpellier), Leolin Zas (Stormers)
NOTABLE OUT’S: Lourens Adriaanse (Pau, France), Jean Deysel (Ulster), Pat Lambie (Racing 92), Odwa Ndungane (retired), Coenie Oosthuizen (injured), Etienne Oosthuizen (Lyon), Clément Poitrenaud (retired), Cobus Reinach (Northampton Saints), Sibusiso Sithole (Kings)
KEY PERFORMERS: The aforementioned du Preez brothers will be crucial, in albeit different areas of the pitch. Jean-Luc has blazed a trail for his siblings to follow on the international stage but you can bet Daniel and Robert are champing at the bit to get their own names up in lights too; Curwin Bosch gave some tantalising glimpses of his natural talent last year, and that experience and a bit more game time at 10 or 15 in 2018 should see him blossom even further.
ONES TO WATCH OUT FOR: Two imports from the forcibly removed Southern Kings – scrumhalf Louis Schreuder and winger Makazole Mapimpi – should help to light up the King’s Park crowd. Mapimpi crossed the chalk 11 times for the Port Elizabeth-based side last season, and will find himself with a bit more ammo to work with this time out; if he can stifle his disciplinary issues, imposing centre André Esterhuizen will be an irritating thorn for most opposition again, and at 23, he has plenty of time to develop further.
DRAW: They went down narrowly to the Lions at the weekend in Johannesburg, but have the bye in round two to recalibrate and go again ahead of successive home games, before jetting off for a month around Australasia. If they can snag a win or two on the road they could be well set up for the next month of games on home soil, before a trip in the opposite direction to take on fellow conference side the Jaguares, in Argentina. They also miss out on a meeting with reigning champions, the Crusaders, in the regular season.
Now entering their third season of Super Rugby, there are two ways of looking at Los Jaguares’ fortunes in the competition so far. On the one hand, you could say there is an upward curve as they finished 13th in year one and 10th in year two, whilst adapting to the rigours of a 21-week professional competition, and allowing for the thousands of air miles and time disorientation involved in transporting them to two different continents and time zones. On the other, you could suggest that a squad that forms almost the entire Argentine national side should have been able to rack up more than a 37% win ratio from its 26 games, and that an average of one yellow card received per game is not conducive to title-winning rugby.
The powers that be obviously fell into the former category, and coach Raúl Pérez was replaced by former Wallaby scrum coach Mario Ledesma in the off-season. The legendary former Pumas hooker has spent the last seven years since hanging up the boots by serving his coaching apprenticeship at Stade Francais and Montpellier in France, and with the Waratahs and Wallabies under the guidance of Michael Cheika. And he hasn’t taken long to stamp his authority on matters, taking the captaincy off the talismanic Agustin Creevy and handing it to backrow powerhouse Pablo Matera.
Whether that was to keep Creevy fresh for his ongoing role as national skipper, or a nod to the fact that he was the most penalised player in Super Rugby last year, and wasn’t exactly leading by example as a result, remains to be seen. But improving discipline across the board must have been a focus for Ledesma since he took charge, alongside the revamping of the Jaguares scrum – his area of expertise. Another factor could be their form at the José Amalfitani Stadium. What initially looked to be a tough away trip in a hostile atmosphere, has been reduced to a nominal hurdle to straddle for their opponents, with just seven wins from their 15 contests in Buenos Aires. Making it an impregnable fortress would go a long way towards their play-off hopes.
NOTABLE IN’S: Tomás Cubelli (Brumbies), Sebastian Cancelliere (Hindu)
NOTABLE OUT’S: Facundo Gigena (Leicester Tigers, UK), Ramiro Herrera (Stade Francais, France), Lucas Noguera Paz (Bath, UK), Santiago Cordero (Exeter Chiefs, UK)
KEY PERFORMERS: Scrumhalf Tomás Cubelli should bring plenty of extra knowledge and experience back with him from his couple of seasons with the Brumbies, despite a serious knee injury restricting him to just 18 appearances. He needs to kick on and reclaim a starting spot ahead of Martin Landajo for both club and country; unquestionably blessed with a gargantuan boot, winger Emiliano Boffelli has far more strings to his bow than an ability to ‘kick the leather of it’, and has the pace, footwork and finishing skills to cause any defence a headache.
ONES TO WATCH OUT FOR: Marcos Kremer’s debut for the Pumas at just 18-years-old was an indication of how highly rated he was by the selectors, and while he has ticked along nicely rather than set the world alight in the two years since, watch the work of this 6ft 5in loose forward and you’re rarely disappointed. Agile and physical, with both size and speed, he is nominally a lock but turns up on the blindside on occasion as well.
DRAW: However the fixtures computer lines things up, the Jaguares, like the Sunwolves, are always going to feel the rough end of the pineapple given their geographical proximity to the rest of the competition. An opening day loss to the Stormers in Cape Town is followed this weekend by an equally daunting trip to the highveld to face the Lions. But a run of five home games and a bye across the next six weeks could provide the platform they will need before their month-long trip to both sides of the Tasman and another trek to South Africa.
The Bulls had been on the slide for a while but 2017 saw a new nadir. For a team that was once the dominant force in South African rugby, winning three Super Rugby titles in four years between 2007-10 with the likes of Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Pierre Spies and Bryan Habana running around, finishing 15th with just four wins was a dramatic fall from grace. They shipped a half century of points at home to both the Lions and Crusaders, suffered embarrassing defeats to the Cheetahs and Kings – the two sides subsequently forced out of the competition by South African Rugby despite finishing above the Bulls – and had the ignominy of being the first South African team to lose to the Sunwolves.
Coach Nollis Marais paid the ultimate price, and has been replaced by the ex-All Black, Western Force, Lions and USA head honcho John Mitchell, who set about changing philosophy and game style with the Blue Bulls in the Currie Cup. While Marais was trying to promote a more expansive style amongst his young side, just 39 tries from their 15 matches (the Lions managed 89 by comparison) was a poor return, and they weren’t working off the trademark Bulls platform of scrum, lineout and plenty of grunt up front either.
Mitchell has vowed to re-establish that forward dominance, whilst putting bums back on seats at a disillusioned Loftus Versfeld with attacking, winning rugby. But the fact that the Blue Bulls managed to outscore everyone else in the Currie Cup regular season, and still concede 62 tries in 12 games, is an indication that the transition is very much a work in progress. Other factors that could be prohibitive are a very tough draw, the departure of Jan Serfontein to France, and the lack of experience at scrumhalf.
NOTABLE IN’S: Tim Agaba (SA Sevens), Marnitz Boshoff (Connacht), Thembelani Boli (Kings), Embrose Papier (Blue Bulls), Dayan van der Westhuizen (Kings), Frans van Wyk (Stormers), Jano Venter (Lions)
NOTABLE OUT’S: Jacobie Adriaanse (Lions), Arno Botha (London Irish, UK), Renaldo Bothma (Harlequins, UK), Jacques Potgieter (sabbatical), Tian Schoeman (Bordeaux, France), Jan Serfontein (Montpellier, France), Piet van Zyl (London Irish, UK)
KEY PERFORMERS: Handre Pollard isn’t exactly a new kid on the block, but the rising star that shone so brightly when he first arrived on the scene as a 19-year-old Springbok debutant, has been dimmed by a succession of injuries. He will be a vital cog in Mitchell’s backline engine; a rare positive last year was the graduation of Hanro Liebenberg, who was given the captaincy at just 21 years of age and produced a string of good performances in a struggling team. Now without the burden of the skipper’s armband (Mitchell has passed that baton onto Nick de Jager), he may be free to concentrate purely on his rugby, which can only be a good thing.
ONES TO WATCH OUT FOR: Former BlitzBokke flyer Tim Agaba comes on board with a skill-set that should see him excel given the opportunity, and while Duncan Matthews may have to wait his turn behind the impressive Warrick Gelant at fullback, he showed enough in his few forays last year to suggest the Bulls may have unearthed a diamond.
DRAW: The only South African outfit yet to play after getting an opening round bye, their challenge starts with extremely testing back-to-back home clashes against the Hurricanes and Lions. If they are 0-2 when they fly to Australasia for games against the Reds, Chiefs and Crusaders, their season could already be an uphill struggle when they return to host the Stormers in round seven.
POINTLESS PREDICTION TIME
It’s hard to tip against the Lions given their squad, and their defeat of the Sharks at the weekend got them off on the right foot. But the loss of both Ackermann’s could be crucial, and you just have a feeling that last year may have been their best chance to go all the way. On paper and going by recent history, the Stormers should be their biggest challengers for top spot. But the absence of Eben Etzebeth and prop Frans Malherbe will be seismic, they have a potentially destabilising road trip, and eight games in a row before the bye will test their resolve and strength-in-depth.
That leaves a nagging suspicion that it might all click nicely for the Sharks this time around. Not enough to win the competition outright, but if they get a good run on the injury front and enjoy a fair rub of the green along the way, maybe they’ll have just enough to edge their two leading compatriots in a photo finish.
Behind them, and on the assumption that they can’t get any lower, we can probably expect an improved Bulls team this time out, and one that will be more entertaining but probably inconsistent. Strength-in-depth could come into play if they start to pick up injuries, particularly in the halves, and that is a horror draw for a team trying to build confidence as they adapt to a new coach and a new approach. Likely to battle out 4th spot with the Jaguares and just get edged out if Ledesma, Creevy and co. can rack up some home wins.
1st SHARKS – 2nd LIONS – 3rd STORMERS – 4th JAGUARES – 5th BULLS