Sharks the SA team to beat in the early stages

John Plumtree arguably has the best squad in South Africa to pursue this year’s Super Rugby title

The Sharks have managed to get their Super Rugby season off to a good start with victories over the Cheetahs and Stormers respectively. Their 12-6 victory over last year’s South Africa conference winners was impressive given the intense collisions taking place around the rucks. It was not great rugby, but it was not poor either, and now the Durbanites have two from two, setting them up for the first half the season.

Their main opposition in the South Africa conference will come from the Stormers, and the Bulls. Morne Steyn, who will be heading to France after the Currie Cup, appears to be the form flyhalf in South Africa at the moment though his team did not cover themselves in glory after beating the Force at Loftus in a poor display 36-26. The scoreline flatters the hosts.

While upfront the Bulls are in fine shape, its their lack of creativity in midfield, typified by a shorn Wynand Olivier, that appears their biggest problem. While their intensity will noticeably improve this coming week against the Blues, Bjorn Basson’s injury is a hammer blow, as the man has the ability to score tries out of nothing.

The Stormers appear to be in better shape this year than last, with Lions players bolstering their ranks. Elton Jantjies, the mercurial flyhalf who when firing is arguably the best in the country, is still settling in in Cape Town with his preparations for the season dealt a large set-back following the sad passing of his father.

Jaco Taute, another Springbok recruit from Johannesburg, is still injured while in midfield Juan de Jongh has not been able to work his way back to full fitness yet. Damian de Allende is a talent, but what should concern coach Allister Coetzee is the effectiveness of his captain Jean de Villiers at 13. Having lost the pace to truly exploit a hole, his distribution is slightly nullified given the ball passes through three sets of hands before getting to him.

The Sharks have the best dept especially among the loose, and given how long the Super Rugby season is, depth is always an important factor for any team seriously planning an assault on the title. In JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo they have two of South Africa’s four best wings while the return of Frans Steyn, surprisingly captaining the side, from midfield rectifies one of their weaker positions last year.

It’s early days yet but the Sharks appear the best equipped side to mount a serious Super Rugby challenge to the likes of the Brumbies, Reds, Waratahs, Chiefs, Crusaders and already this year’s dark horses, the Blues.

Australia see sense with new Cooper deal

The retention of Cooper within Australian rugby is key for Australia to move forward on the rugby field

Like a marriage that went awry, then reconciled through counselling, Quade Cooper’s signature on a new AUD$800,000 deal to keep him in rugby union for the next two years proved that after some huffing, finger pointing, puffing, and anger-inspired, wiser heads prevailed.

With many, including myself, suggesting that Robbie Deans is an ailment that should be cast aside as soon as possible, Cooper’s signature will go some way to disproving the doubters that Deans still has the dressing room behind him in his quest to lead Australia to World Cup glory in 2015 following 2011’s failed attempt.

It’s also a boon for the Super 15. Cooper’s absence would have severely depleted the star power of the Queensland Reds, Australia’s best team, and the Australian conference as a whole, already believed in both South Africa and New Zealand to be the weakest of the three and given preferential treatment via the competition format (on both counts, Australia are guilty as charged. We just have to live with it until 2016).

Cooper, famously big chums with another budding boxer and world rugby superstar across two codes Sonny Bill-Williams (and they share the same agent in Khoder Nasser), also represents the type of exciting and skillful player Australian rugby needs to entice and keep youngsters in the game. He is a highly marketable asset, and the longer he stays in rugby union where he can display his outstanding ball skills (his tackling? Well, Fox Sports pundit Greg Martin says “tackling is all about heart”) the better it will be for the game in the southern hemisphere.

The ARU also had the carrot of a British Lions series to dangle in front of Copper, and buy keeping him in the code for two more years, its highly likely he will sign on again to compete in the 2015 World Cup when he will arguably be an even better player. He’s got the ability, and considering what Australia have in terms of playing personnel, should always start at 10 with his scrumhalf equal Will Genia at 9.

I’m looking forward to some more Quade Cooper antics next year, but hopefully on the field and not in the boardroom. Like the Kevin Pietersen-England cricket saga, it’s a very bad idea to isolate your best player when they are willing to come back to the pack.

Cape Town won’t see another All Blacks Test until WP realises it needs to walk away from history

Many said it would become a white elephant after the 2010 World Cup. They weren’t exactly wrong

The South African Rugby Union released the Springbok’s home fixtures up to 2015. While there is a new four-team tournament next year, with Nelspruit being anointed a Test venue, an interesting side note is that all the Test matches featuring New Zealand will be played in Johannesburg, at either FNB Stadium or Ellis Park.

I’m sure there are many in Cape Town who feel they are being cheated, even though they get Australia twice in the same period. The last time South Africa played New Zealand in Cape Town was 2008 when South Africa were embarrassingly beaten 19-0 by the All Blacks. Perhaps the fact that Cape Town’s climate is startlingly similar to New Zealand’s is another reason why another All Blacks Test hasn’t been played there?

Cape Town Stadium was built in Green Point, is modern, centrally located and easily accessible by road, and has 60,000 seats. Newlands was founded in 1888, and has gradually evolved with the times, now boasting around 50,000 capacity though some of that is standing. It is crammed into a suburb where road access is poor though rail access is near by (though not used enough by the Cape Town consumer, especially many white residents who barely know it exists). I kid you not. I lived in Cape Town for a year and a half, with many locals not knowing there was a train line there or had never even used it.

Newlands is owned by the Western Province Rugby Football Union (WPRFU), which in turn is controlled by the 70-plus clubs that constitute it. It is an amateur body compared to the unions business arm, WP Rugby. While the WPRFU has said time and again it is not moving from Newlands, with amateur attitudes ruling the way, surely it is time for the union to modernise and be willing to part with history for the sake of the future?

The land that Newlands is built on is worth millions. Selling it would arguably instantly make Western Province the richest rugby union in South Africa. Surely an agreement can be found, especially with Western Province and the Stormers the best supported franchise in Super rugby in South Africa, where WP buys into Cape Stadium. Provincial rugby bosses love money, and Cape Town Staium offers potential revenue that Newlands, though a fabled ground of history, can’t match.

A bit crammed isn’t it?

Until then, I guess Capetonians will have to make due with Australia and lesser lights. For those that live in Johannesburg, the All Blacks are coming every year till 2015.

Springboks need a more refined approach for 2015

Pat Lambie is in a four-way contest between himself, Johan Goosen, Morne Steyn and Elton Jantjies for the coveted no.10 jersey

Another rugby season in the southern hemisphere has come to an end (mercifully so some would say), so what have we learnt?

1.South Africa’s playing style is stuck in the Bronze Age

With players getting fitter and bigger, the pace of rugby union has increased tremendously since the game turned professional in 1996. However, watching the Springboks play today, you would think you are watching a dinosaur move around the modern African bush, such is the retarded (on creativity at least) nature Heyneke Meyer’s outfit have employed their game plan this season.

Kick, tackle, kick, tackle, kick, chase, tackle. While such a description is over simplified, watching South Africa play international rugby this year has been an exercise on the attention span of the Springbok supporter, which isn’t the longest to start off with.

The continued retention of Morne Steyn when he was clearly not even the third best flyhalf in South Africa, pursuing with Francois Hougaard on the wing even though he is a scrumhalf, and having Zane Kirchener at 15, who is so dull on the field his code name would be “Zane Kirchener”, angered many Springbok supporters, with Meyer stubbornly refusing to budge until it was obvious that Steyn had to go, albeit three Test matches too late. He still retained Kirchener and Hougaard till the end of the season.

Only the victory over Australia at Loftus Versveld during the Rugby Championship had any fluency to it, while the rest of the season, including awful draws against Argentina and England, has been one long grind. As New Zealand showed in Johannesburg in crushing Meyer’s side, power and running into brick walls only gets you so far.

Meyer’s sympathisers have claimed he was dealt a bad hand, that he had to use a style to get results, and that his side was missing a lot of valuable experience. Even so, employing such a backward game plan has severely stagnated or actually worsened the Springboks’ back play, which wasn’t too flash to begin with, nor did his rigid selection policy seem to change much until seasons’ end.

If South Africa want to be serious competitors at the 2015 World Cup in England, the Springboks need to learn how to use the ball in hand, and not just on the foot. Otherwise the Springboks will struggle to make it past the quarters like last year, where Peter de Viliers’ employed the same tactics to little effect as his side botched several scoring opportunities to win the game. Will history repeat itself?

2. The All Blacks have peaked for now but will still be the world’s best team

New Zealand swept all before them this year until they were thumped 38-21 by England last Saturday. They won 20 Test matches in a row, and did it in some style, as the likes of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Ma’a Nonu showed their skills in dismembering which ever opponent they faced.

With the core of the 2011 winning team beginning to age (Carter, captain McCaw, Kevin Mealamu, Nonu, Conrad Smith, Tony Woodcock and Andrew Hore to a certain degree), coach Steve Hanson has the tricky task of revitalising the All Blacks with fresh blood to ensure they maintain the stratospheric standards New Zealand have set in the last two years.

He has succeeded somewhat, with the introduction of the likes of Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith, and try-scoring machine Julian Savea showing he is very aware of the risks posed of not evolving. In Aaron Cruden, New Zealand have a fly half who could arguably walk into any other Test side in the world except his own.

They won’t perhaps be as good as they have been, but New Zealand will still be the best rugby team in the world come 2015. The question is how much they will evolve by then, and who their personnel will be.

3. Robbie Deans should be fired as Australia’s coach

Australia, a team South Africa hate losing to in any sport, have lost their best player in Quade Cooper following an acrimonious split with coach Robbie Deans this season. Also, Australia’s back play, often their strength considering Down Under produces high quality footballers regardless of position, has been insipid compared to teams past. They have almost adopted their larger opponents tactics, such as New Zealand and South Africa, whose games are initially based on forward domination (with that being the only similarity between the two).

A reason for the decline has been the entry of a fifth team into the Super 15, further diluting already stretched playing resources. Another reason has been injury, with the Australians virtually missing an entire team on the sidelines. Still, Australia instead of going forward have actually gone backwards as a rugby nation, and that in part, from the outside, appears to be down to Deans and the uneasy relationship he has with the Australian players (Cooper, and before him Matt Giteau, as examples), their playing style and media.

The man should be sacked or resign, so Ewen McKenzie can take over. While it won’t be a dramatic turnaround, an Australian managing the Australian nation rugby team will ensure both management and player are on the same wave length to a certain degree. Right now, that doesn’t seem the case.

4. England are going to be handful come 2015

England’s rousing performance against the All Blacks at Twickenham on Saturday was a highly energetic and committed performance which showed the Roses to have the potential to develop into a dangerous side come the 2015 World Cup. There was pace, power and intelligence in their display, and while the All Blacks were arguably jaded with it being their final Test of the year (and perhaps over-confident), England took their opportunities when it mattered to thrash the current world champions.

With England drawn with Australia and Wales in their World Cup 2015 group, South Africa are the ones likely to face the Roses (or the Wallabies?) in the quarter-final three years from now. It is a thought Heneyke Meyer, who should still be in charge then, won’t relish at all.

5. The rugby season is too long and players need to be managed

What marked this international season out from others is the amount of injuries suffered during the Super 15 tournament, the Rugby Championship and end-of-year-tours within the southern hemisphere.

World class performers such as Schalk Burger and James O’Connor have been missing this season due to injury along with many others. With this season being the longest ever in the southern hemisphere, the importance of national and regional coaches coming together, along with the players’ associations, to find a way to ensure players are managed properly as to not be constantly injured, could not be more important.

The players are the most important currency in the game, so they need to be protected. Don’t hold your breadth though.