Bulls now South Africa’s best hope?

Pierre Spies’ men are now South Africa’s leading side on the Super 15 log. Do they have the ability to go further?

We are 11 weeks into the Super rugby season and it seems the Australian sides, with the motivation of the British & Irish Lions series to come, have lifted themselves to the point where the Reds and Brumbies both have more log points than South Africa’s top side, the Bulls.

With the Sharks’ endless injury list and the Stormers’ inconsistency ruining their chances of play-off progression from the republic, it is now down to the two sides from the Highveld: the Bulls and Cheetahs.

The Cheetahs have had a magnificent season thus far, especially considering their poor log placing in previous seasons.

They are the best attacking side in South Africa and have added some steel to their previously leaky defence (one wonders how John McFarland and the other Springbok coaches wondering around the country to the different Super Rugby franchises has had an affect on that). 

Their Highveld brethren the Bulls top the South African log on 37 points, two ahead of the Cheetahs. Thought to have mid-log potential at the beginning of the season given their lack of squad-wide experience, the men from Pretoria have shown an ability to scores tries beyond their traditional set-piece and kicking strength.

The return to form of Morne Steyn has proven an important part of their season, while discovering new stars such as Jan Serfontein has helped the re-freshening process. The question now is whether they have the depth and ability to go beyond the play-offs into the business end of the competition.

With the Brumbies (41), Chiefs (40), and Reds (39) all above them in the standings, the Bulls will need to string several victories together to ensure they don’t have to step on a plane for their play-off match. The Cheetahs would be aiming to do the same and have continued to progress even without star flyhalf Johan Goosen.

Their bye, same as the Bulls, has come at the right time. With mostly local derbies to come till the end of the competition, it will be interesting how the South African conference shapes up.

Australia should see both the Brumbies and Reds, who are playing fine rugby, into the play-offs, while New Zealand is a clutter with the Crusaders, who appeared to be losing their way, back into contention (how good is Dan Carter?). The Blues play champagne counter attacking rugby, while the Chiefs keep winning even though they let in too many points for a defending champion. 

The picture after June will be clearer.

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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.

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.