When Peter de Villiers made his first and only public relations utterance — suggesting South Africa would have three teams in last year’s Super 14 semifinals — he was rightly laughed out of town.
In his bold prediction, the Springbok coach had overlooked two things: the lingering effects of South Africa’s post- World Cup hangover on several senior players, and the country’s renowned lethargy in dealing with change (in last year’s case, the experimental law variations — ELVs).
Simnikiwe Xabanisa writes for the Sunday Times that a year later, De Villiers’s faith doesn’t seem so misplaced. Looking at the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls squads, all are good enough to make the semifinals. But try selling that to their coaches.
“I don’t like to speculate,” said Stormers coach Rassie Erasmus this week, “Out of the 14 teams, nine or 10 have an equal chance of winning. It’s not a matter of buying into theories, I just don’t think South African teams have a better chance than New Zealand and Australian teams.”
Erasmus used the Waratahs’ past few seasons to paint a graphic picture of how unpredictable results can be: “The one year they made the final, the next they finished 13th, and they made the final again last year.
“Every year seems to be the year, and then things don’t go well. Speculating can only get your neck burned.”
Erasmus’s pessimism is shared by the Bulls’ Frans Ludeke, who named a long list of things that needed to be aligned for a team to win the toughest provincial competition on earth.
“You must overcome the day-to-day challenges and not panic when things inevitably go wrong,” he said.
“Your depth is important because when the next guys step in they must produce immediately. You need luck because it’s a tough test of everything — your mental and physical strength, your strategy… everything.”
Those reservations aside, Ludeke said the local sides were unlikely to be caught with their pants down again by the ELVs.
“We’re pulling together as coaches, swa pping ideas on how to approach the challenges.”
The coaches’ brainstorming appears to have led to greater focus all round on conditioning, defence, breakdown skills, kicking out of hand and organising counter-attacks.
Based on those requirements, the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls should do well as these are areas they normally excel in, in addition to having sound scrums.
The breakdown has become an even more important part of the game under the experimental laws.
This is to such an extent that teams who field two “fetchers”, or have players well-versed in poaching ball elsewhere, are tipped to be successful in the tournament.
The Stormers field two scavengers in Schalk Burger and Luke Watson in their loose trio. The Sharks are proficient in the area and boast perhaps the best-balanced back row in the country in Jacques Botes, Jean Deysel and Ryan Kankowski.
The Bulls’ aggressive approach to the breakdown has yielded rewards, while the Cheetahs and the Lions can’t be said to have inferior loosies when they can field Heinrich Brussow and Cobus Grobbelaar.
Ludeke expects the Cheetahs and the Lions — both of whom he found to be “very well-organised” in beating the Bulls in their friendlies — to do well.
The one area that might hold the locals back under the new dispensation is the lineout. When South Africa were winning internationally, the lineout was critical to the success.
Bulls captain Victor Matfield bemoaned its lost status as a platform for primary possession owing to the legalising of collapsing the maul and allowing teams to field as many players as they like in the contest.
“The drive is dead and that’s a big problem,” he said, “The numbers law has made it difficult to win your own ball.”
He said the only way teams could try to gain an advantage from it was to play the short ball at the front; play only a few players on their own ball in the hope of creating an overlap; or play the ball to the back to try to exploit the vacuum between the lineout and the back line.
“It’s a pity, but we need to adapt and learn skills to win ball under the new laws.”
Erasmus said because teams no longer aimed to kick the ball out, the game had gone from having about 23 lineouts a match to between seven and eight.
“We still have to work hard at it,” he said. “There are a couple of things you can try, but that’s easier said than done.”
The local sides may have the squads to win the Super 14, but to paraphrase De Villiers, they are going to have to lift a leg.Tweet