It’s been a significantly improved year for South Africa’s four Super Rugby franchises.
The Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers are all in the hunt for a playoffs spot and it’s expected that three of the teams will probably make the cut.
The Lions have not performed to the same standards as the last few years but the Stormers and the Bulls have already earned more points in 2019 than they managed last year. The Sharks are nearing that point too.
Whilst relative performance may have improved, however, there’s still restlessness out of the former republic the Super Rugby franchises are playing a brand a rugby that won’t yield great results at the next level up.
2018 brought mixed results for the Springboks. A 50% win-record does not make for pretty reading for one of world rugby’s most historically successful teams.
The highlight of the year was the team’s successful venture to New Zealand – besting the All Blacks at home, 36-34.
That win marked the first time that the Springboks had successfully knocked over the All Blacks in New Zealand in nine years. The British & Irish Lions had managed a win the year prior but other than that result, travelling teams have had very little luck in New Zealand over the last decade.
Outside of that victory, however, results didn’t give Springboks fans a whole lot to smile about.
Still, while there are concerns about the Super Rugby sides’ style of play and last year didn’t exactly go to plan, South African rugby supporters should be feeling optimistic about their team’s chances in 2019.
The constant stream of top-level players leaving the Rainbow Nation has made it difficult for them to maintain high standards in their Super Rugby sides, but South Africa doesn’t need 140 high-calibre players to put together an impressive test team.
The Sharks, Lions, Bulls and Stormers all have their weaknesses in key positions, but together they can amass a formidable side.
Power and athleticism in the forwards
Scrummaging has always been of South Africa’s strengths but their front rows have sometimes lacked the ball skills to compete with the best in the world. Whilst subtle touches may still not be Spingboks tight five players’ fortes, they’re also no slouches.
Malcolm Marx is arguably the best hooker in world rugby right now and the Lions have performed noticeably worse without his experienced frame on the field. He has the athleticism of the likes of Dane Coles and Codie Taylor in New Zealand and the power of Ireland’s Rory Best.
The locking pair of Eben Etzebeth and either Lood de Jager (should he have sufficiently recovered from his shoulder surgery) or RG Snyman is as confrontational and aggressive as they come. Etzebeth, in particular, is the abrasive kind of player that every team needs at least a few of.
In the loose forwards, the Springboks are as well stocked as any other nation. In captain Siya Kolisi they have one of the most athletic flankers in the world and a man who leads by example. Kolisi has been one of the Stormers’ form players this season. He will be well supported by the likes of South African based loosies Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen and Warren Whiteley. There are other prodigious talents like Kwagga Smith also doing the rounds in Super Rugby.
Meanwhile, overseas, former Springbok Marcell Coetzee is putting in some monster performances for Ulster and there have been suggestions that he could be in the mix too. Francois Louw has been his typical self for Bath and may have one more international season in him.
Fully fit players will strengthen the backs
The halfbacks are an area of particular strength, especially after factoring in foreign based Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach. Sale’s de Klerk was considered by most to be the league’s best halfback of the season. Reinach has been on-form too and was officially named the Premiership scrumhalf of the season.
Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies will steer the team from the 10 jersey. Both players have high ceilings but they’ve struggled to live up to their early promise. Jantjies has never quite looked at home in test rugby, even though he’s guided the Lions to three straight Super Rugby finals. Pollard will likely get the playmaker role from day 1, but injuries have inhibited his development.
Rassie Erasmus favoured a midfield combination of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel at the end of 2018, but Lukhanyo Am has been performing so well for the Sharks that there may be a changing of the guard. Am was used in last year’s Rugby Championship and started in the victory over the All Blacks but missed the Springbok’s end of year tour due to a fractured arm sustained in that very match. His Sharks midfield partner, André Esterhuizen, will likely be the fourth centre selected.
The Springboks have countless options in the outside backs. Willie le Roux will continue to offer the Boks a second playmaker from the back field – but local talents such as Curwin Bosch have also done enough to suggest they shouldn’t be too far off a test call-up.
Per usual, wing is an area of strength of South Africa – although also one of relative inexperience. Kriel was sometimes used on the wing last year but when Erasmu has access to the likes of Aphiwe Dyanti, S’busiso Nkosi and recent Sevens convert Rosko Specman, you have to imagine that outright speed will be the flavour in the wider channels.
Further afield, Cheslin Kolbe has been one of the form wings in European rugby – though questions will inevitably be asked about his size.
All in all, there’s enough depth in the Springboks squad to seriously challenge for the World Cup. Their key players have been on-form in Super Rugby and it would be a huge mistake to write off the South African team’s title credentials.
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