Former Springbok legend, centre and sport365 columnist Robbie Fleck is very excited ahead of the 2008 rugby season – for two reasons; the Varsity Cup and the Super 14.
It’s been quite a busy few days for me; in between my preparation in writing this weekly column – (Robbie is not to blame for last week’s no-show – ed.) I am also involved, as a coach, at the University of Cape Town.
It is an absolute pleasure coaching at UCT – along with head coach John Dobson – where I spent many happy years as a player, but the guys have an extra incentive this year in the shape of the inaugural FNB Varsity Cup, which I think has the potential to turn university and club rugby on its head!
It is a fantastic competition which will be played, initially, on Monday evenings, before it culminates in a ‘season finale’ over Easter weekend in George. UCT’s first home game is against Pukke on February 18, followed by Tukkies the following Monday, before we hit the road for some away games – some of which will be televised.
I only wish we had a similar competition when I was still playing at UCT. When I first broke into the UCT first team, Intervarsity – against the Maties – had begun to die down, which is sad as I had many fond memories supporting UCT whilst a scholar still. In fact, I opted to play for UCT based purely on those matches I used to watch – they were always the underdogs against Stellenbosch and I wanted nothing more than an opportunity to play for the Ikeys against the Maties in an Intervarsity match.
Now, and thanks to tournament sponsors FNB, Steinhoff, SAB and Canterbury, this opportunity has presented itself again and I know of 25 young UCT students who are champing at the bit to do their university, and themselves, proud.
Truth be told, it gives these guys a fantastic opportunity to showcase their own talents, especially if they missed out on Craven Week selection. However, at the same time, it also advertises the university – hopefully some bright, talented scholars out there will be tempted to go to UCT based simply on watching the Ikeys play in the Varsity Cup. I also know plenty of former players at the club, many of whom I am in regular contact with, and they will all be coming to watch on the 18th and the 25th – this is a tournament for young and old, so expect to see the future, present and past all in attendance at a typically windy UCT on Monday nights.
I can’t praise the sponsors enough; university and club rugby has been neglected in recent times, yet, here we have a tournament that can usurp the Vodacom Cup as the next best thing to Super 14 and Currie Cup rugby. The Vodacom Cup has not covered itself in too much glory since its inception in the late 1990s and I believe that club rugby needs to be used to identify talent, something the Vodacom Cup has just not done.
On a personal note, I have enjoyed coaching at UCT and it adds an extra level of excitement ahead of the Varsity Cup, especially as there is now more at stake for me. Having said that, it’s a dream coaching these guys. I have never seen a Varsity team so focused, which makes it easy for us coaches. I mean, have you ever heard of UCT students training during January – on their own??
The set-up at UCT is also very professional, we have a strong support staff and no stone is being left unturned ahead of this exciting tournament. However, we are aware of the battle that we face, especially against teams like Maties, Pukke and Tukkies – all of whom have budgets considerably bigger than us. One thing is for sure though, expect to see a lot of heart from this UCT side and we will continue to play the exciting brand of 15-man rugby that has always been synonymous with Ikey rugby.
Of course, before the Varsity Cup kicks-off on the 18th, there is the small matter of another tournament starting on February 15 – yes, the 2008 Super 14 is nearly upon us.
I am very excited for the Super 14, mainly because of the fantastic 2007 World Cup in France, but also because we are on the verge of a new dawn in the history of Super Rugby.
For so long now we have watched the likes of Hayman, Jack, Gregan, Larkham, Mauger, Howlett dominate and thrill us with their pace, power or skills, yet now, they are no longer around and we are bound to see the emergence of some new faces Down Under. I think South Africa, with the likes of Spies, Kankowski, Steyn and Pietersen, have already produced their new generation of stars, so I am quite interested to see what the Kiwis and Aussies can muster up.
The Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) – the ‘new’ laws – will also add an element of unpredictability to the initial stages of the tournament. I expect the Aussies, mainly because they are so scientific in their approach, to cope well with the law changes (and also because they played under these laws in their domestic competition last year), but a guy like Rassie Erasmus would also have prepared the Stormers very well under these new conditions.
These new laws will suit the fast pace of southern hemisphere rugby down to the ground. Sure, the first four weeks will be tricky, for players and referees, but once it calms down and everyone gets used to them, expect some even faster-paced rugby from all the usual suspects. It will be frustrating at first, but it will also open the game up.
We have been working according to the ELVs at UCT and some of the statistics that I have seen are astounding. In the past, on average, the ball was in play for 24 minutes. Now, with the ELVs in place, they are expecting the ball to be play for 34 minutes – in all, teams are expected to run an extra 10 kilometres per game! It goes without saying that fitness will be an issue, but at the same time, the collisions will also be that much harder.
Expect to see more running, fewer scrums and the breakdown will be an absolute dog-fight. Again, back to my coaching stats, and they are expecting as many as six turnovers at one breakdown, making the ‘fetchers’ worth their weight in gold. Some teams will play two fetchers and the centres – like a De Wet Barry of old – will be expected to help win ball on the ground. Counter-attacking will also once again become a focal point and I can see some teams dropping four or five players back at a time in order to counter more often.
This all adds up to a faster, higher-paced game, but one that is way more physical, too. This game would have suited me down to the ground… In fact, I would even have done a few extra 400-metre sprints at training to improve my fitness!
A BRIEF LOOK AT THE COMPETING COUNTRIES IN THE SUPER 14:
Australian rugby is in trouble – they have lost some world-class leaders in the shape of George Gregan and Stephen Larkham and they have no depth up front, as England exposed at last year’s World Cup. They have the backline talent, but that doesn’t help if your forwards can’t get their hands on the ball.
Looking at their four teams, I think the Force are Australia’s best bet for a semi-final spot. They’re a solid bunch and, in their third season of Super Rugby, they appear to be more settled and they have a few stars in the shape of Nathan Sharpe and Matt Giteau. Also, they have one of the better coaches in world rugby, in John Mitchell, and they will be looking to go one better after their dramatic improvement last year.
The Brumbies, for so long the trend-setters in Super Rugby, will battle – you simply cannot replace decision-makers like Gregan and Larkham straightaway, not to mention Joe Roff who left a huge void last year. They will be tough at home, but wins away from home will be hard to come by.
In the same breath, the Waratahs will also battle with a few losses to their resources and I can’t see the Reds featuring at all; they have not been the same team since losing Eales, Wilson, Horan, Little and Herbert.
As always, the Kiwis will be favoured to have a team in the final and perhaps even two sides in the top four. As an extra incentive, they will be smarting after the World Cup and desperate to knock South Africa off their perch as Super Rugby and World Cup champions.
However, I don’t quite think the New Zealand teams are as fearsome as they used to be. Take out the likes of Hayman, Oliver, Jack, Holah, Kelleher, Mauger, McAllister, Umaga, Gear, Howlett – to name just a few – and suddenly the cupboard looks a bit bare in the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’.
The Kiwi teams have exceptional Super Rugby records. They are well-coached and well-organised and even though there are plenty of expectations for them to do well, there is a lot of inexperience in their squads – something they are not accustomed to.
Of course, the Crusaders and the Blues will always be a threat – traditionally, they have dominated the Super 14 and I expect them both to be up near the top come the end of May.
The Crusaders – even without Jack and Mauger – still have Dan Carter in the mix, and also Leon MacDonad, who is vastly experienced, and they have also signed Ali Williams, who will go a long way to replacing Chris Jack.
The Highlanders, Hurricanes and Chiefs are lacking the depth required to challenge consistently in the Super 14. It’s a pity as I love the way the ‘Canes play, whilst I think the Chiefs have missed a trick in not offering Warren Gatland the top job in their region. Look what he has already done in his brief spell with Wales?!
For once, the SA teams appear to be a lot more settled than their antipodean rivals, but I don’t see them taking their overall 2007 dominance to a new level in 2008.
The Sharks, for me, would have to be seeded either one or two for this year. They have a fantastic coaching staff with Dick Muir and John Plumtree, they have depth in every position and they have some exciting players – think Kankowski, Steyn and Pietersen – in almost every position. Look at their props, for instance – Kees Lensing, Beast Mtawarira, BJ Botha, Jannie du Plessis – that is serious depth.
They will also be determined to go one better than last year’s final loss, although they will miss John Smit, Percy Montgomery and Butch James tremendously. Of those three, I think Butch will be missed the most, especially the form he was in last year, but in Freddie Michalak they have a Test quality fly-half capable of filling the breach. One thing Michalak cannot do, however, is defend that 10-12 channel like Butchie has in the past.
The Bulls will be hard-pressed to defend their title without Victor Matfield and coach Heyneke Meyer. Matfield is the best line-out technician in world rugby and Meyer’s replacement – Frans Ludeke – is not in his predecessor’s class. Frans is a nice guy, but he did not do well with the Lions and he does not have Heyneke’s standing in the coaching community either.
Another big loss for the Bulls is that of their Aussie backline coach, Todd Louden. His influence was huge last year and although my old Stormers mate Pieter Rossouw will bring something new to the table, I imagine the Bulls will once again become more conservative in their approach.
They will be competitive, but not as successful as last year.
The Cheetahs, meanwhile, have dominated the Currie Cup in recent years, but they will battle to take that form into the Super 14.
Naka Drotské has done a fine job in Bloemfontein since taking over from Rassie, but they do not have enough depth in their squad, having lost a few big hitters in the shape of Os du Randt, Willem de Waal, Marius Joubert and Philip Burger.
They will do well at home, but they will not be semi-final contenders.
The Stormers, under Rassie Erasmus, are an interesting one. I spent a bit of time in their camp this weekend, as part of my coaching at UCT, and I was so impressed with their set-up. They’re looking in great shape, they’re a very physical bunch and technically they will be the best-drilled side in South Africa – especially when it comes to the ELVs.
Unfortunately, this Super 14 is a year too early for them. They have lost 10-12 senior players in the past two/three years and they lack the leadership required to go on and win this tournament.
They do, however, have the best coach in the country in Rassie. He is meticulous in his approach and will leave no stone unturned ahead of the Super 14, but, like some of the NZ teams, they are lacking some battle-hardened veterans to pull them through when it matters most. I hope they prove me wrong, as they look better prepared than many Stormers teams before them, but this team needs a year to grow.
The Lions complete the South African challenge, but I can’t see them posing any threat on the road. They lack big names with André Pretorius and Jaque Fourie sidelined – and with Ricky Januarie at the Stormers – but if they turn up on the day they will be a handful. They will be tough to beat at home – a few Australasian scalps will go a long way towards helping their fellow SA teams.
Eugene Eloff has done a fine job in Johannesburg, since taking over from Frans Ludeke, and they played some exciting rugby during the Currie Cup. Unfortunately, the Super 14 is a different kettle of fish and I can’t see them making an impact. I was harsh on the Lions last season, even though they did have their moments in the initial stages of the Super 14, but I will be singing the same tune in 2008.
Next week I will look at the opening games and give my predictions as I will be doing throughout the competition.