Super Rugby 2018: South African Conference Report Card

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Super Rugby 2018
CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 04: Kwagga Smith of the Lions makes a break during the Super Rugby Final match between the Crusaders and the Lions at AMI Stadium on August 4, 2018 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Martin Hunter/Getty Images)

In Super Rugby 2018 the South African Conference produced a mixed bag, both in terms of results and team progression.

Super Rugby 2018

We take a look at how each team in the South African Conference performed through the Super Rugby 2018 competition. Before we do that we need to comment on the “doom loop” that many South African rugby fans find themselves in.

The Doom Loop

It seems that no matter what happens in South African rugby, there is a “yes, but” attached to it. The but will generally be followed by a negative statement discrediting any success or positive aspects of the South African game. All South African franchises have their issues. The South African game has certainly been at a low over the last few years. Are there solutions? Most definitely there are solutions to start rebuilding the traditional strength that the world respected. The most important one at this stage is being bold enough to invest in quality coaches and structures, which seems to have been forgotten in the recent past.

Too often, we see coaches being fast-tracked into senior positions without building up a strong CV to justify their appointment. The game needs experienced coaches and mature structures to deliver results. Which of the South African franchises can claim to have both?

Emirates Lions

The Lions seemed to attract most of the doom loop commentary. They have fanatical fans who support them no matter what the result. The Lions have qualified for three consecutive finals.

Yes, but they qualified  BY virtue of playing against other South African franchises who are not exactly in a great space right now.

The last South African team to play in a Super Rugby final was the Sharks in 2012. Prior to that, it was the all-South African final between the Bulls and Stormers in 2010. Credit where it is due. The Lions also won cross-conference games to earn enough points to end second on the overall log. They had issues of their own, with their fair share of injuries to key players.

The Lions’ greatest weakness this season was their inability to change their pattern of play if the situation demanded it. The Super Rugby 2018 final was a perfect example of this. They were largely unable to broach the Crusaders defense and only late in the game started playing a tighter game. They did this with success and put the Crusaders under pressure, but the game was effectively gone by then. When it came to the driving maul for the corner, the Lions were very predictable and the Crusaders where waiting for them. Setting up with twin pods of forwards, with the line out receiver passing the ball to the second pod to maul with would have added a level of unpredictability. The ploy of Elton Jantjies kicking on the Crusaders back three from deep was fatally flawed as most times it meant that there were only one or two chasers who were on side.

The second problem they are facing is one of squad depth in key positions. This is an issue that might become an even bigger problem in 2019. Playing Elton Jantjies for every minute of every game is not great for the player or the development of team. To add to this, the player exodus continues. The latest player to announce his move up north is prop Jacques van Rooyen. This adds to the list of Franco Mostert, Ruan Dreyer, Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Andries Coetzee.

A commendable season from the Lions.

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Jaguares

The Jaguares have been perennial under-performers since their introduction to the Super Rugby competition. This is despite the fact that their squad is loaded with Argentinian Test internationals. They were well known for their lack of discipline and a game passing by without them conceding at least one yellow card was a rarity.

This seemed to change after the arrival of new Head Coach, Mario Ledesma at the start of the Super Rugby 2018 season. It would appear that his arrival finally resulted in the talent within the squad being harnessed to start delivering the results expected of a side containing so many international players. They qualified to play in the quarter finals of the competition courtesy of their overall 7th place finish and second place in the South African Conference. This included a 7 game winning streak, including away wins against the Rebels, Brumbies, Blues and Chiefs.

It will be interesting to see if Ledesma is able to build on this momentum in his new role as coach of Los Pumas.

A much improved season from the Jaguares which should provide them with a strong base to work off in 2019.

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Cell C Sharks

Earlier this year, we predicted that the Sharks would do very well in Super Rugby 2018 given the strength of their squad. Inconsistency bedevilled the class of 2018. They were only able to record back-to-back victories once throughout the tournament, twice losing to a Vodacom Bulls teams that ended last in the South African Conference.

Their overall eighth place in the overall standings landed them the unenviable task of travelling to Christchurch to take on the table topping Crusaders in a quarter-final.

There has been a lot of speculation as to why such a talented squad did not find themselves higher up on the overall Super Rugby table. One theory is that there is a level of discomfort in the squad as the setup is dominated by four men with the same surname – Du Preez. That may or may not be true, but 2019 must be a year that sees the Sharks in an improved log position more indicative of the resources they have at their disposal.

A disappointing campaign given their resources.

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DHL Stormers

The Stormers avoided the wooden spoon in the South African Conference by virtue of a superior points difference to the Bulls. There is more than enough quality in their squad and have a strong pipeline of young players to supplement their squad.

We have long questioned Head Coach Robbie Fleck’s qualifications to fill this role. Add to this, the very confusing assistant coaching setup Fleck has surrounded himself with.

Paul Treu is the assistant coach for structural play, coaching the team up until the third phase of attack. Paul Feeney was back line and skills coach in 2017, but filled the role of coach of attack and defense from unstructured play. Russell Winter’s role changed from forwards coach to assistant coach for forwards and contact situations, including the breakdown area. Winter’s role is probably the easiest to make sense of, with the other two surely creating more confusion than certainty.

With the undoubted talent available in the Cape Town area, it is surely time to reassess what the Stormers are doing and how they develop their team and pattern of play. The first step would be to return to more traditional and sensible coaching roles. It would be an unbelievable claim to regard this current setup as a success.

Another team that has not delivered to their potential in 2018.

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Vodacom Bulls

The Bulls ended the Super Rugby season with the wooden spoon in hand. For most parts, the arrival of new Head Coach John Mitchell was evident through a much improved attitude with ball in hand. What destroyed their season was a very poor defensive system and a pack that was too often put under pressure at scrum time. In our pre-season squad analysis, we pointed out that the Bulls front row stocks looked very thin and this proved to be a major problem throughout the season. There were times that the Bulls pack was pushed around like a Woolworths shopping trolley on payday.

There is much speculation regarding Mitchell’s future at the Bulls. Eddie Jones has come knocking on his door to appoint him as England defense coach. If that is not the case, it is noteworthy that Mitchell has uttered that he would not sign an extension to his contract if the Bulls did not recruit more top level players. First on his list would most probably a tighthead prop to anchor the Bulls scrum.

After a very encouraging start displaying handling skills Bulls teams are not associated with, it went pear shaped for Mitchell’s charges. Poor defense and a weak scrum consigned them to last place in the South African Conference.

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There is a lot of work to be done in South African rugby. Super Rugby 2018 delivered one team that can claim a successful campaign. The rest were pretty much below par. The Super Rugby 2019 season is an important one as it will be a Rugby World Cup year. For the Springboks to be successful in that tournament, it is imperative that the Super Rugby franchises produce much more convincing campaigns.

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