All that separates the top from the bottom in the South African conference is bonus points – which begs the question why on earth did Stormers fullback Damian Willemse try to run a missed penalty kick back from in front of his own goal posts with time on the clock expired instead of ending the match.
The turnover of possession shortly after that ill-advised decision gave the Bulls another chance to score and take away a losing bonus point – which they did. Perhaps the Stormers, written-off by many after a 40-3 loss in Pretoria at the hands of the Bulls in the first round, were just happy to get the win. Never mind that the Bulls now sit one point ahead of them in the conference.
This is the state of Super Rugby in South Africa – a team considered the worst in the country, mired with off-field administration issues – is still in the thick of the conference race sitting 3rd despite themselves, and could perhaps win it, while no team is consistent enough to be considered better than average at this stage.
While Rassie Erasmus praised the early season form as being test-match like due to the prevalence of high percentage of territorial kicking, time has proven this approach of yesterday doesn’t win championships in Super Rugby today.
Three of the top five teams that kick the ball out-of-hand the most are South African, while a fourth, the Jaguares, play in the same conference. Only the Lions opt to play a possession-based game and subsequently kick the third least in the competition. While they are languishing this year, this is the approach that led to making the final for three straight seasons.
While kicking in exit zones inside your own 22 is generally a good idea, too many aimless kicks are made to play territory by South African sides in midfield zones, often for no other good reason than that they can’t hold shape for long. These kicks often go uncontested and are just hoofs downfield for as much distance as possible.
The Bulls’ territorial kicking game, led by Springbok flyhalf Handre Pollard, has failed to consistently control games recently and the lack of strike power in the Bulls’ game against the Stormers was apparent without someone like flyer Rosko Specman.
The Stormers, without their own territorial kicker SP Marais and with livewire Damian Willemse in the line-up, came alive. Their counter game produced two critical tries to do enough to keep the Bulls at reach. After taking over 160-minutes to score their first try of the season, have found some ability in attack in the absence of clinical structure. They produce the third most offloads in the competition and have found ways to create opportunities through creative types like Dillyn Lleyds in broken play.
The Bulls are renowned for taking the points at every opportunity, and while Pollard is the leading scorer in the competition, this three-first approach is flawed. It can win derby games, but it will generally comes up short against the New Zealand sides. The Bulls defence was torn apart 56-20 by the struggling Chiefs, denting the case for playing this way in Super Rugby.
With just 20 tries so far, the Bulls have the least amount of any team. Their game strategy is papering over cracks, giving hope for titles which cannot be delivered.
Four of the top five sides with the most points per game are filled by Kiwi teams – Crusaders (1st), Highlanders (2nd), Hurricanes (3rd) and Chiefs (5th). Building a high-scoring attack is a pre-requisite to winning Super Rugby, or at least, matching it with the New Zealand sides. The Chiefs and Highlanders aren’t likely to feature at the business end this year, but the Hurricanes and Crusaders most definitely will.
Seven is greater than three, and with the Crusaders scoring upwards of 25 points in 20-minute windows, you have to be able to play with the ball to starve them of the opportunity. While it seems like no one will match it with the Crusaders this year, only one of the four South African teams is taking the right approach to get there.
The Lions title window may be closing, but they have shown the blueprint.
In their three finals appearances since the last World Cup, they beat the Crusaders, Highlanders, and Hurricanes in the playoffs to get there. They were a high-flying side with aggressive attacking intent and knocked over quality New Zealand teams consistently.
Had they been able to keep Johan Ackermann along with key pieces like Jaco Kriel, Faf de Klerk, and Franco Mostert, they would likely still be the premier side in South Africa today by some distance. They have still scored the most tries this season of any South African side and it wouldn’t surprise if they end up on top of the conference again, despite not having the same level of team as the last few seasons.
However, kicking less and trying to play with ball-in-hand immediately won’t pay off for all the rest of the South African teams. It would in all likelihood see the number of wins drop in the short-term. To implement the type of system required to open up teams with possession and ball movement requires a full-scale roster review and far more complex thinking from coaches and players alike. Skills over extra brawn, speed and mobility over extra size.
The Faf de Klerk’s, Curwin Bosch’s and Cheslin Kolbe’s are proof that the South African system that could deliver the type of rugby seen in New Zealand. As the Crusaders push towards a third consecutive title, in a decade where New Zealand has seven of the last nine titles, the mediocrity of the South African conference is as telling as ever as is the play of the majority of the sides.
Just who wins the conference will be an intriguing battle but it won’t matter in the bigger Super Rugby picture.