The Super Hero double-header at Cape Town Stadium pretty much confirmed what we suspected about the 2019 South African Super Rugby challenge – there is precious little between the four contenders and you pick a winner at your peril.
The SA teams will be competitive, inevitably against each other, but it was difficult to see a serious challenger to the Crusaders’ title after the dust had settled on Sunday and, in this World Cup year, is Rassie Erasmus going to get the invaluable platform of a successful SA Super Rugby campaign?
It is fact that Super Rugby form is a huge springboard to a successful World Cup. The All Blacks have enjoyed the momentum of the Crusaders’ title triumphs and, indeed, Jake White will tell you his job in 2007 was made that much easier by the Bulls and the Sharks dominating Super Rugby that World Cup year.
Super Rugby form engenders confidence and boosts morale for the national team. So it is vital that the Bulls, Sharks, Lions and Stormers pull finger over next few months to give Rassie the best possible shot at glory in Japan come September.
But, at this point, which SA team looks likely to put its hand up and lead the way? There were only a few points separating the Sharks and the Lions in the early match and ditto when the Bulls and Stormers scrapped in the later game. You could have swapped opponents and it wouldn’t have mattered.
The four sides were equally handicapped by the absence of a handful of key players, mostly players that have recently returned from duty in Japan, and you got the impression that what you saw on Sunday was pretty much what you will get when Super Rugby kicks off on February 15.
The Lions look like a side that is in transition after being South Africa’s standard-bearers for some time. They have lost too many senior players over the past three years. It has not helped Swys de Bruin one bit that his former colleague, Johan Ackermann, has plundered the Lions’ senior reserves for the benefit of Gloucester.
The gap between the Lions and the other three teams has been closed.
The Stormers, on paper, look world class, but that has been said of them for years before they predictably implode. How can a side with pretty much the Springbok starting pack underachieve so spectacularly?
It can only be down to an unhappy team culture. The fish rots from the head, as they say, and you would have to say the maladministration at Western Province is accountable for the perennial failure. Sadly, it looks like nothing has changed given the bad press the union has recently suffered.
It is easy to point the finger at coach Robbie Fleck but the malaise that has stricken the Stormers is way more complex than that.
The Bulls have been “rebuilding” forever, it seems, but they can no longer use that excuse, even if they have had a change of coach from John Mitchell to Pote Human. They have had the same core of players for some time, and now they are steeled by excellent leaders in Duane Vermeulen, Schalk Brits and fit-again Lood de Jager.
The Bulls need to produce this year, and they will surely be better than in 2018 when they finished stone last in the local challenge.
If the Bulls have no excuses this year, neither have the Sharks. Most certainly not. They have had the same team for three years now and Robert du Preez can no longer utter the “we are a young team” refrain.
The Sharks had patches of brilliance last year, particularly against the New Zealand teams, but were criminally inconsistent.
Using Super Hero Sunday as an indicator, there’s not much to choose between the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers. But the big question will only be answered in the coming weeks – can South Africa mount a serious challenge for the trophy?