It is not something for the country to celebrate that the best local team, the Stormers, could find themselves with only the seventh-best haul of log points overall if they lose Saturday’s final league game in Durban. However, the doom merchants also need to get some perspective.
A look at the detail of the log shows that South African teams were actually more competitive than last year in terms of matches won, and what really went wrong this season was that the two favoured sides, the Bulls and the Sharks, were well below par.
Here are the facts. Last year the Sharks topped the South African conference by a country mile, finishing third overall, with the next best local team being the Bulls in ninth. The Sharks won 11 games last season, compared with the seven each of the Bulls, Stormers and Lions.
This year the Stormers have so far won 10 out of 15. They have sent an understrength team to play the Sharks on Saturday, so there is a good chance they will lose, but their full-strength side would have been heavily favoured to win if there was still something for them to play for. That would have meant they boasted 11 victories, the same as the Sharks last year.
What is different to last year is that the next best team was not that far away from the mark set by the Stormers.
The Lions won nine of their 16 games, and drew in Cape Town, and should have at least drawn against the Stormers in Joburg too.
They have made a considerable improvement on previous performances, with their season being turned around by three wins overseas, and their coach Johan Ackermann is right when he says that his men are on an upward path.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the teams that did well this year were the ones which suffered less from an identity crisis than the Bulls and Sharks did.
The Bulls, who will probably finish with eight wins after Saturday’s game against the Cheetahs, meaning one better than last year, played what was termed - for them - a revolutionary style of rugby in the pre-season.
However, once the season had started, and they lost a few early games, they became schizophrenic, looking like they were between strategies.
Perhaps the Bulls were too conservative in the past, but at least they had certainty about what they were doing. This year they lacked certainty and, as a result, played confused rugby and failed.
Certainty was the one thing that the Sharks had under Jake White. It wasn’t pretty and the players may not have liked White, but winning was the bottom line. Once Patrick Lambie was injured, it required pragmatic rugby to do that.
That certainty was replaced this year by even more confusion than the Bulls have been afflicted with.
The whole vibe in the pre-season appeared to be anti-White, with every promise of playing a crowd-pleasing brand of running rugby that would net tries and put bums back on seats.
“The object of rugby is to score tries and we aim to do that,” was the proclamation made by Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold in the build-up to his team’s opening match.
It took that first game, a loss to the Cheetahs, to alert Gold to the folly of that statement.
The objective of rugby is surely to win, and if the opposition score more tries than you do, then they will win.
The Cheetahs did that and the Sharks, who had employed a defence coach who the Southern Kings were reportedly glad to see the back of, had clearly forgotten that defence is at least half the game.
The problem at the Sharks may not be with the coaches, but with the strange machinations of the administration that has appointed the coaches since John Plumtree was effectively sacked in 2013.
For instance, it wasn’t Gold - who has been in the firing line of critics during the season - who was in charge of the Sharks’ pre-season preparations, but Brendan Venter.
It is during the pre-season that most of the work is done, determining so much of what will happen. It would be understandable if the players weren’t quite sure who their boss was when the competition began.
In any event, the brand of rugby that the Sharks were speaking about at the start never materialised, and it is now hard to say what the Sharks stand for as a team.
You cannot say that about the Stormers or the Lions.
That Super Rugby success can build momentum for World Cup success was a lesson learnt in 2007, when two South African teams contested the final and then the Boks won the World Cup. But it does not necessarily follow that Super Rugby success or failure is a precursor of what will happen at the global showpiece, as the Wallabies should be able to tell you after their 2011 experience.
The Reds won Super Rugby that year, the Wallabies won the Tri-Nations, but the efforts of those achievements caught up with them at the World Cup in New Zealand, where they were injury ravaged and showed poor form, with only the incompetence of referee Bryce Lawrence preventing an exit in the quarter-finals.
If the Springbok players are fresh and sharp at the World Cup, the resting plan will be regarded as a success. It is only when that tournament is played that we will be able to take a definitive line on that.
Independent on Saturday
Original source: Super Rugby worries for SA