The retrograded Super Rugby competition kicks off this weekend, but the bookies are warning SA supporters to expect more of the same from the opening round.
Super Rugby’s expansion experiment has been nothing short of a disaster and, perhaps persuaded by the proverbial horse bolting from empty stadiums, Sanzaar has tried to close the gate by contracting the competition from 18 teams to 15 this year.
South Africa’s contingent has shrunk from six to four teams, though the transfer of the Cheetahs and Kings to the PRO14 has therefore not resulted in a boost of talent to the surviving four Super Rugby franchises.
However, the Melbourne Rebels do feature a few stalwarts from the disbanded Western Force and there is an expectation that the three-conference competition will produce a better spectacle. That expectation probably won’t be validated this weekend as more than two thirds of the teams start the competition on a bye.
Round 1 features two matches: the Stormers host the Jaguares and the Sharks dive into Ellis Park to challenge the Lions. And the results of those matches are unlikely to signal the end of contests that were, at some points of last season, 76% predictable.
In 2017, the Stormers started their season with a home win, the Sharks lost on the road and the Lions beat South African opponents. On Saturday, the Stormers will start as 3:1 favourites to beat the Jaguares at Newlands, and the Lions are as favoured to sink the Sharks in Joburg.
But hey, the bookies have been wrong before. Maybe the Stormers, missing the injured Springbok second-row partnership of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit, are in for a surprise from the Jaguares in their first match under former Wallabies forwards coach Mario Ledesma. And perhaps the Sharks will ambush the Lions, who will be taking their first steps under Johan Ackermann’s replacement, Swys de Bruin.
Tight contests and unpredictable results are what established Super Rugby as the game’s premier regional competition, and the revival of that reputation will benefit all stakeholders in the long run, even if that means SA’s two front-runners in 2017 start this season with a loss.