A year to forget for SA

2014-12-23 00:00

IT may be a ghastly thought to remind ourselves that some of the Super Rugby teams have already been involved in a month of pre-season training as we settle down to some festive cheer, but in recapping this year’s Vodacom Super Rugby series there was hardly much to get festive about.

We like to be positive, and in assessing this year’s Vodacom Super Rugby series, perhaps the most positive aspect was that a South African had his hand on the trophy.

Yes the Waratahs hit the Jackpot — the name they gave their super South African Jacques Potgieter (a player the Vodacom Bulls let go because he “didn’t fit their team culture” and then unsuccessfully tried to get him back again) — as they turned him into a Sydney cult figure who could do no wrong, especially when Michael Cheika’s team took the title.

And in keeping with things positive, perhaps it is good to then also mention the success that coach Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin had with the Golden Lions’ return to the Southern Hemisphere competition, especially when it came to notching up the most wins in their franchise’s history.

Indeed their impressive start to the tournament gave them a great early run in the competition, one which was inevitable to fade once the teams really started to get down to the business end of matters.

There was also the impressive influence of the South African contingent at the “seventh franchise” in Perth, where director of coaching Mickey Arthur (yes, the cricket coach), combined well with former UCT coaches Dave Wessels and Kevin Foot to be part of the Western Force’s best season ever. With a number of “Saffas” in their side, the Force were impressive on their home ground and shook up the Australian conference somewhat.

Of course, there are a number of people wondering by this point in the article why we haven’t mentioned South Africa’s best team in the tournament — the Cell C Sharks — as they had won the South African conference and made the semi-finals, and it is a complicated matter.

Because, and some Sharks fans may not agree, but while they were the standout South African team and most consistent franchise from these parts during the competition, they were also a team who were so hell-bent on achieving success that they played their players into the ground to get it.

All in all, there are few in Durban who have been left without a sour taste in their mouth from a Super Rugby season where there was so much promise, but where self-destruction played such a major part in proceedings.

Of course, and here we’re not even talking about the Springboks who headed into the June Tests looking like walking zombies, never mind the fact that they had not had a rest in the nine previous weeks of the competition.

Jake White’s arrival in Durban was heralded with much fanfare, especially as he had taken the Brumbies to a Super Rugby final a year before. But the partnership with John Smit as new CEO, the rugby the team had employed and the manner in which the players were managed left a lot to be desired.

And lo and behold, shortly after Super Rugby, the predictions of White being a short-lived coach were to come to fruition, as he left the Sharks under a cloud, barely a year after taking the reins at the Durban franchise.

The rumours of player unhappiness and fallouts in the camp were stifled by the success, but ultimately White’s decision to employ only a low-risk kick-and-chase game plan, coupled with a decision not to rotate any of his senior players, cost him in the end.

And while the success was justified — the Sharks had an exceptional tour with a remarkable win over the Crusaders while down to 14 men — when seen in the realm of the entire season, the scorched earth selection policy would come back to haunt them when it mattered most in the playoffs.

Still they were by far the most successful South African franchise and deserve plaudits, even though the approach may not have been a popular one.

But if the Sharks deserve any criticism then the other four franchises should get heaps of it. Stung by a mass exodus of talent to Europe, often in key positions, there was a general lack of promise from the other SA franchises, with the Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers being the most disappointing of the bunch.

The Lions — without a sponsor in the tournament but full of gusto — produced their best season ever in terms of wins, forging out seven victories in a return to the tournament they missed out on in 2013, but never would have had the firepower to go any further with their coaching staff doing an exceptional job in reviving the franchise.

The Bulls flattered to deceive, and their insistence on playing players on loyalty, ahead of talent was a massive drawback in their campaign. They came close, and often looked as if they would make the playoffs, but decisions at hooker and loose forward that were based on coaching favourites ahead of rising talent were just two of their problems.

Of course, losing Boks Pierre Spies and Arno Botha before the season started didn’t help, with both needing a big 2015 if they want to head to the World Cup. But it was the failure to back IRB Junior Player of the Year Handré Pollard for one, and being caught between a move to be expansive, and the safety of the kick and chase that ultimately cost them.

The Stormers were also hit by injuries, but were more hampered in their approach by the failure to decide just how they wanted to play. Their defensive game plan had brought them so much success in the past, and while they found their rhythm in the second half of the competition, they started poorly as they seemed caught in two mindsets, rarely backing themselves to succeed in a competition they should have done a lot better in.

It would be wrong not to acknowledge the collective improvements of the Australian and New Zealand sides in SA’s regression during the tournament, as both countries didn’t have as much of an exodus as SA, but many of the problems in the South African franchises were self-inflicted.

The Cheetahs … it is a simple reason why we left them for last. After having a stellar 2013 where they made the playoffs, Naka Drotske’s team regressed in terms of defence to such an extent that they ended second last, with just four victories in the entire season.

Their win over the Bulls — their first in Super Rugby history — was probably the highlight of a season that went downhill fast, and unless they have a better 2015, Drotske’s long coaching reign will be under threat.

The Cheetahs still managed to score 38 tries, but conceded 59 — a stat that sums up their season in brutal fashion.

So 2014 wasn’t the best of years in Super Rugby, and it showed when the Boks — many of them out on their feet from the Sharks campaign — headed towards the national camp. But it also opened the doors to a younger breed of talent to move through quicker, and hopefully the fruits of those forced changes will be seen in 2015.

In a World Cup year every potential Bok will be watched for form, and if 2014 is any lesson, player management will be paramount. Reputations will mean little when it comes to Southern Hemisphere success and with the player base being consistently eroded by euros and yen, the local sides will need to find another way of getting the victories they need.

They’ve been training for a month already and as we settle down for a festive feast the players will be the first to admit that 2014 should be forgotten.

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