The next few rounds of Super Rugby will give us a more accurate idea of where the South African teams stand in relation to their more fancied New Zealand counterparts, writes JON CARDINELLI.
How much should be read into the performances across the first round of the 2018 Super Rugby tournament? Should we be concerned that so few fans turned out to celebrate the beginning of the southern hemisphere’s regional showpiece?
Ellis Park attracted a decent crowd for the local derby between the Lions and Sharks – some 27,500 souls. Newlands, however, failed to attract 20,000 fans for the official season opener between the Stormers and Jaguares.
There was no Australasian representation. The game kicked off at 15:00 on 17 February. Perhaps the local fans who stayed away thought it was another pre-season hit-out.
The game at Ellis Park was a traditional South African derby, and witnessed some outstanding performances. Kwagga Smith was a menace at the breakdown. Malcolm Marx was an absolute titan at the collisions. The Lions scrum fired, and yet Sharks backs like Lukhanyo Am and S’bu Nkosi still managed to make an impression for the visitors.
Some hailed it as a great advert for South African rugby. Others said that it gave them hope after the Springboks’ poor results and performances in November 2017.
That said, there’s no getting around the fact that the game involved two South African teams. While there is reason to celebrate a good start to the tournament, we can’t say with any certainty where these sides stand until they have been put through their paces by a New Zealand franchise.
Some context. We all know that the All Blacks are the No 1 team in the world and that the New Zealand franchises have won five of the last six Super Rugby titles. However, over the past two years, the Kiwis have increased the gap between themselves and the South African Super Rugby collective. The results in 2016 and 2017 illustrate the point.
In 2016, the average score across the 15 conference-stage matches involving New Zealand and South African sides was 33-24 in favour of the Kiwis. The New Zealanders scored an average of 4.27 tries against South African teams and conceded 2.8.
In 2017, the average score in those 15 matches was 42-22. The South African collective conceded an average of six tries and missed 26 tackles per match. On attack, they averaged 2.5 tries per match.
As a group, the South African teams lost 13 of those 15 matches last season. While the Lions beat the Hurricanes in their semi-final, they went down to the Crusaders in a decider staged in Johannesburg.
Did we witness any real progress at Newlands or at Ellis Park this past weekend? It’s hard to say. The Stormers beat the Jaguares, like they always do. The Lions won their seventh consecutive Super Rugby game against the Sharks.
More should be read into the coming clashes against Australasian opposition, and indeed the matches played on New Zealand soil. One could say that tournament proper begins in round two, with the Stormers travelling to Sydney to tackle the Waratahs, and the Bulls hosting the 2016 champions, the Hurricanes.
Coach Robbie Fleck has already expressed his concerns about a squad that will be without Boks like Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Jano Vermaak and Bongi Mbonambi for the duration of the coming sojourn. Some among the touring group will have bad memories of the 2017 journey to New Zealand, which saw the Stormers leaking 155 points and 24 tries across three matches.
For the sake of their own campaign, and for that of the South African rugby fraternity, the Stormers must find a way to improve on their previous showings and push those top sides close. It’s a tough ask to go to Sydney and then to New Zealand to face the Crusaders and Highlanders, though.
The Bulls will play their first match in Australasia on 10 March. Their schedule includes away games against the Reds, Chiefs and Crusaders.
The Bulls don’t have a good record in this part of the world, and were poor across the board in 2017. Some might say that they would do well to beat the other South African teams this season. Real progress, however, should be measured by results against Australasian opposition.
The Lions and Sharks have been talked up as South Africa’s two best bets for a Super Rugby title in 2018. The performances at Ellis Park on Saturday would have encouraged a lot of people. Then again, the quality of both outfits will be determined by how they fare against the top teams.
The Sharks play their first game Down Under on 17 March. After tackling the Brumbies and Rebels in Australia, they will face off against the Blues and Hurricanes in New Zealand.
The Lions will only travel abroad in mid-April. They may fancy their chances against the Waratahs and Reds. Wins against the Hurricanes and Highlanders in New Zealand will be harder to obtain, especially if the Lions suffer a few injury setbacks in key positions.
South Africa’s rugby teams will have a lot to prove over the next few months. One would hope that – at the very least – they manage to reduce those aforementioned margins and win the majority of their home games against New Zealand teams.
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