Is it safe to smile?

Craig Ray

An Irish colleague asked this week: “Has South African Rugby turned the corner?”

It’s an interesting query because initially I wanted to blurt out ‘yes, of course. Just look at recent evidence.’

I wanted to point to the Lions as exhibit A. Johan Ackermann’s men topped Super Rugby’s standings and have been unbeaten at Ellis Park for 15 matches while only losing one game this year – when they fielded a second-string team in Argentina.

They will host Saturday’s Super Rugby final where they take on the seven-time champions Crusaders at Ellis Park. Over 60,000 fans are expected to cheer them to victory to become only the second SA team to win the title.

The Lions’ effective style of play, their superb results and astute coaching could easily seduce you into thinking all is good in the world of SA Rugby.

Exhibit B – The Springboks’ recent 3-0 series whitewash over France is another reason to think misery on the rugby field is behind us after 2016, which coach Allister Coetzee has done his best to erase by simply saying ‘it’s in the past.’

Exhibit C – The Blitzboks have set a high bar in sevens, allowing us to puff out our chests and shout: ‘it’s great to be South African.’

Exhibit D – Off the field, SA Rugby’s management is well run. A slick RWC 2023 bid is currently under scrutiny by World Rugby and the Cape Town leg of the World Sevens Series is the most successful on the calendar

Jurie Roux’s sharp mind and negotiation skills cannot be underestimated in warding off a potential disaster by offering the Cheetahs and Southern Kings an alternative if they walked away from Super Rugby without a fight. They are in the PRO 14, which will earn them each R25m a year in addition to their cut from the Currie Cup with the potential to add tens of millions more if European qualification is on the table.

Exhibit E – The Junior and amateur structures in SA rugby remain healthy. The recent Craven and Grant Khomo Weeks underlined the talent in schoolboy rugby while the Gold Cup sets a high bar for club rugby in this country. The women’s game is also well funded and resourced and is starting to show growth and success.

But this is SA Rugby and disaster is never far off.

The Stormers, Sharks and Bulls veered from mediocre to pathetic during the Super Rugby campaign while the Cheetahs were true to their historic form of winning a few games and losing many while playing attractive rugby. They are the RomCom of SA rugby – fun to watch, but lacking any depth and meaning.

Barring the Lions, the Southern Kings were, pound-for-pound, the best SA team in Super Rugby, which isn’t saying a great deal. They won six games playing in a conference with Australian teams. Lest we forget, Aussie teams only won six out of 46 matches against foreign opposition in 2017, and two of those were against the Kings.

The Lions could lose on Saturday and then their season would be seen as a failure despite all that’s happened so far.

The Springboks have much tougher assignments to come after bullying a tired France. The All Blacks remain the gold standard and the health of Bok rugby can only be measured against NZ. Any other gauge is meaningless.

The Currie Cup looks increasingly like a repackaged Vodacom Cup and players continue to flock to overseas clubs because of the weak rand and promises of wild riches in France and England.

The RWC 2023 bid could fail and the Blitzboks could be knocked off their perch next season.

Has SA Rugby turned the corner? It has, but we don’t know if the road ahead is clear, or whether we are veering head-on into oncoming disaster.

- Craig Ray